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Dead Fingers and Toes

>> Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I whine a whole lot on this blog about how much I hate cold weather.  One of the reasons I hate cold is that my fingers and toes are extremely sensitive to cold - moreso than most people's.  I have Raynaud's (pronounced "Ray-Nodes") Disease, which isn't as serious as it may sound, but it's SERIOUSLY ANNOYING.

Whenever my extremities (hands, feet, nose) get cold, they start going completely numb in random spots.  They turn a disgusting translucent sort of white, and eventually a lovely shade of purplish blue.  Once they start warming up they turn an amazing livid shade of orange.  If they stay blue long enough, it hurts like hell to warm them up again.

I didn't plan ahead long enough for this blog post, so all I have are photos of a very mild white phase to show off.  Spot the two white finger tips:

I need to try to capture the blue and orange phases with the camera.  It's much more dramatic.  It's not consistent which spots turn what color when - each time is different.  It's extra special when I have all three colors going at once.  I'm like that weird creature who keeps changing the color of his spots in the children's book "Put Me in the Zoo" by Robert Lopshire. 

My husband refers affectionately to my fingers and toes in the white and blue phases as being "dead," based on their resemblance to a corpse.  His term of endearment has stuck, largely because he's right.  They're creepily corpselike.

I first encountered Raynaud's when I was in college - my junior year abroad at Oxford, to be precise.  One of my friends kept experiencing the weird color changes and finally got the diagnosis of Raynaud's.  If there's one thing the British don't do like the Americans it's heating buildings, and I suspect the perpetually frigid indoor temperatures are what caused Melanie's Raynaud's to be so apparent that year.  My personal experience with Raynaud's didn't start until several years later, for no apparent reason.

From what little research I have done, I have been able to gather that scientists don't know much more about the mechanisms of Raynaud's than I do.  They know the weird discolorations and numbness are caused by vasospasms, meaning the blood vessels contract and restrict blood flow.  It's far more common in women than in men, and is most often seen in women "of child bearing years".  It's often linked with other diseases, particularly autoimmune diseases and hypothyroidism.  It also has been linked to repetitive stress injuries, smoking, certain drugs, and chemical exposures. 

But what is it?  Is it autoimmune itself?  Why do the blood vessels restrict - where are the neurological commands to restrict coming from and why?  No answers yet.  I shall try to refrain from grumbling about the lack of effort that seems to be spent on researching diseases that affect women more than men.  Oops - too late.  I guess I already did.  :)

Thankfully, it's not terrifically serious for most people.  The "treatment" for me is to warm up the extremities before the lack of blood flow has had time to do any damage, which typically is not hard.  I spend extra money on super warm socks and mittens and boots, and tend to carry pocket hand warmers with me all winter, and whenever we're hiking, just in case. 

However, I admit to having twisted nightmarish fears about not warming my hands or feet up in time.  I worked for a while in my past as a Federal Court law clerk handling prisoner cases, including a few claims by prisoners related to Raynaud's.  The folks making the claims were heavy smokers and in ill health, but the vivid descriptions of ulcers that wouldn't heal, gangrene, and amputations stayed with me.  Vividly.

On that cheerful note, I think I'm running a little low on hand warmers.  Time to stock up!


Ellen Rathbone December 9, 2009 at 10:33 AM  

Wow! My fingers and toes are hyersenstive to cold, too (I think I had close encounters with frost bite some time many many years ago), but nothing like this! Looks like you need to stock up on hand- and toe-warmers for the winter! That's what dogs and cats are for. :)

Holly December 9, 2009 at 12:23 PM  

Ahhh! I have Raynauds, too!!! My husband doesn't even believe it's a real thing... but IT CAN BE SO PAINFUL!!! I was actually diagnosed when I was about sixteen. I know it usually starts in the hands, but I went through an entire winter with purple toes. At first, they thought it was related to a heart condition. It doesn't bother me too much, probably because I stay inside most of the time and wear slippers constantly and always have the heat on my feet when I'm in the car. I attribute it to the reason I never got into skiiing!

Woodswoman Extraordinaire December 9, 2009 at 1:34 PM  

LN - I agree - the dogs in particular make great hand and foot warmers.

Holly - It's amazing how many people I meet who have Raynaud's. I wonder what percentage of the population does? Mine started with purple toes, too, and I'm completely with you on how much it can hurt. E.g. sticking dead toes into warm bath water = stupidly, miserably, excruciatingly painful. Tell your husband I said he should be more sympathetic! :)

Unknown April 27, 2014 at 7:50 AM  

Thumbs up for sharing, wish that everybody would do it, normally feelings are not visible and these warning signs, thank you so much for posting it, clorophyll from foods and yellow and green vegtables DAILY may help you, also green tea, Thank you

Nicole DiVito November 10, 2014 at 11:27 AM  

Hi Holly! I'm a PR specialist at the American Academy of Dermatology, and I'd love to use this photo in one of our educational videos on frostbite. May I please have your permission to include it? Happy to credit you at the end of the video. Please let me know. Thanks so much.

Woodswoman Extraordinaire November 10, 2014 at 11:52 AM  

Nicole, you may certainly use these two photos. I'm always happy to grant permission for anything educational! Please let me know if you need anything more from me.

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