It’s 45°F outside and I’m ready to run, dressed in shorts, a t-shirt, and … mittens? I can happily run into the mid-30s in shorts, but my hands need coverage if it’s cooler than 55°. And regardless of what I do, my fingers will become white and immobile about 15 minutes after every chilly run.
Sound familiar? You might be one of the estimated 28 million people who experience Raynaud’s phenomenon.
What is Raynaud’s?
Raynaud’s is a disorder that disrupts the blood flow to your fingers, toes, nose, and ears due to a spasm in the blood vessels. The affected area turns white, then blue, then bright red over the course of the attack as blood flow is restricted and then returns. The spasms can cause tingling, swelling, or painful throbbing, and can last from minutes to hours.
The condition can manifest in a few ways: when exposed to cold temperatures from either cold air outside or air conditioning, or even from holding something cold. Interestingly enough, breastfeeding mothers sometimes experience this condition in their nipples.
Despite being discovered more than 100 years ago, there’s still not a lot known about Raynaud’s cause or cure. According to the Raynaud’s Association, women are nine times more likely to be affected than men. Some researchers estimate as many as 20% of all women in their childbearing years have Raynaud’s.
And, at least based on my informal surveying, it’s very common in runners. Of course, part of why it’s common in runners is because we often run outside in the exact conditions that cause symptoms. But you may also be aware that when you exercise, your body diverts blood flow from areas it doesn’t need it as much (skin, extremities, digestive system) to areas it does (lungs, heart).
“Exercising may shift blood away from the skin to the muscles,” Dr. Fredrick Wigley wrote for the New York Times. “During exercise, body parts, including the hands, are in need of more blood. Even though you may feel warm, if your skin is sensing cold, then the shift to the muscles and other parts of the body may be exaggerated.”
Should you see a doctor?
The Raynaud’s Association estimates only 1 in 10 people suffering from the condition seek medical treatment. If your attacks are infrequent and easily treated (like, um, remembering your gloves), it’s worth a mention to your primary care doctor at your next visit, but likely not a critical issue.
However, Raynaud’s can be a secondary condition related to other diseases including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, carpal tunnel syndrome, or frequent jackhammer use (totally relevant). If you’re concerned you may have one of those conditions, or your Raynaud’s seems to be worsening or doesn’t respond to conventional treatments, GO SEE YOUR DOCTOR.
By the way, in severe cases, the area may develop ulcerations and infections, which can lead to gangrene. You don’t want that. If you’re concerned, GO SEE YOUR DOCTOR!
It’s also worth noting that some people’s Raynaud’s attacks are triggered by stress or other highly-emotional situations.
How to control Raynaud’s
No surprise here, but keeping your hands warm is the number one way to avoid an attack. It’s an experiment to find what works for you. I can do cheap dollar gloves from 40-55°, but below that, it’s mitten territory. My favorites are Smart Wool Cozy Mittens, which fit snugly and are a tight knit that keeps the wind out.
I’ve tried running-specific tech mittens, including one with a fold-over wind flap and a pair that has a fleece liner and windproof outer layer. Here’s the issue: they’re usually too big. If you have small hands, you need small mittens. Big mittens won’t keep your fingers together so the air isn’t trapped.
Raynaud’s sufferer Rachel Boehm, who ran the JFK 50 miler in 2014 to raise awareness of the condition, collected data before her race to find the best solution. She found that she overdressed out of fear of having her hands suffer, but then her upper body would sweat and the sweat trickling down to her hands made her hands colder than the air alone. So don’t overdress!
Other tips for preventing Raynaud’s phenomenon:
- Use hand warmers, but be careful that your hands don’t get sweaty and then get cold.
- Try gloves under mittens, especially if your mittens are too big.
- Wool tends to retain heat better when wet, so wool mittens or gloves and socks are good options.
- Avoid caffeine. Although it has been shown to boost athletic performance, caffeine also restricts blood vessels, which is kind of what we’re trying to avoid here.
- Layer up! You want to keep your body warm, because under-dressing can cause your body to redirect blood flow to your core and away from your extremities. But you don’t want to be so warm that you sweat a lot and then get wet and cold. Dress so that you can take some pieces on and off, and stash dry gloves if you can. (My friends are used to finding my shed vests and gloves in their yards. On the upside, someone usually has a pair of my gloves ready for me!)
- Lather on a thick lotion before you head out — this will help block the wind. I use Aquaphor on my hands, ears and face.
- Compression socks and arm warmers may encourage better circulation.
- As soon as you’re finished running, TAKE THE SPORTS BRA OFF, and the rest of your damp clothing, ASAP. Obviously you’re probably not going to take your sports bra off and then put the wet stuff back on, but the point here is to get that damp layer off quickly. Pack a dry sports bra or go bra-less, nobody will know under your sweatshirt anyway. (Going to the grocery after a chilly run in damp clothes is a sure-fire way to trigger Raynaud’s. Believe me.)
- Check with your doctor to see if any of your current prescriptions might be aggravating the problem. There are also prescriptions that can reduce symptoms, including Viagra (not kidding).
Do you suffer from Raynaud’s? What are your best tips?