PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.
Synonyms: Raynaud's disease
This condition was discovered by Maurice Raynaud (a Parisian physician) in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It is characterised by a paroxysmal vasospastic and subsequent vasodilatory chain of events affecting peripheral arterioles, usually in the hands and feet. It commonly occurs as a response to cold exposure but may also be precipitated by emotional turmoil. The process may occur as a primary entity or secondary to other disease processes.
The pathogenesis of Raynaud's phenomenon is complex but abnormalities of the blood vessel wall, of neural control mechanisms and of intravascular circulating factors are known to interact and contribute.
Note that Raynaud also has a type of gangrene (symmetrical gangrene of the extremities) and a sign (symmetrical, mottled cyanosis of extremities with patches of erythema and excessive sweating) named after him.
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The most common trigger is thought to be exposure to cold. Attacks may even occur after minor changes in temperature, such as moving into an air-conditioned building from a hot summer day. Other reported triggers include emotional stress, medications such as beta- blockers, injury due to vibrations or forcible trauma, extended use of digits, smoking and the presence of other arterial diseases, such as vasculitis.
- Prevalence studies have shown that 3-12.5% of men and 6-20% of women report symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon. Prevalence is higher in colder climates.
- Family history, oestrogen exposure and emotional stress are commonly associated with Raynaud's phenomenon in women.
- Smoking and hand-arm vibration syndrome are more commonly implicated in men.
- In 10-20% of cases, Raynaud's phenomenon is the initial manifestation of an associated underlying connective tissue disease, such as scleroderma, dermatomyositis, systemic lupus erythematosus, mixed connective tissue disease, Sjögren's syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis.
- One study of about 1,500 people found that 89% of Raynaud's phenomenon was classified as primary and 11% as secondary to an underlying cause (see 'Distinguishing between primary and secondary Raynaud's phenomenon', below).
One review found that primary Raynaud's phenomenon has an overall prevalence 4.85% and annual incidence of 0.25%. The review also found that primary Raynaud's phenomenon starts at a young age, is more common in women, is associated with a family history and also with smoking. The review found that people with primary Raynaud's phenomenon are four times more likely to have migraine.
- The patient may initially notice pallor of the distal portion of one or more digits. For reasons as yet unknown, the thumb is usually spared.
- There is usually a clear demarcation line between affected and normal skin.
- There then follows a feeling of numbness or pain in the digit(s) accompanied by cyanosis (blueing) of the digit.
- Finally, there is a hyperaemic phase where the digit becomes red and feels warm.
- Individual patients may show variation in the sequence of these three phases.
The patient's age and sex will influence the likelihood of this being primary or secondary Raynaud's phenomenon. Enquire about any associated symptoms such as migrainous headache, recent joint or muscle pains, rashes, symptoms of infection, weight loss, etc, to detect possible underlying causes.
It is important to take an occupational history and specifically ask about the use of vibrating tools at work or at home. Take a medication history, including over-the-counter/complementary preparations, and ask if anyone in the family has the same problem. Ask if the patient has ever had frostbite, which is thought to increase the risk of subsequent vasomotor hyperactivity.
In primary Raynaud's phenomenon there will usually be nothing to find, as patients rarely present during the event.
- To detect evidence of an alternative cause for the symptoms, or an underlying disease associated with secondary Raynaud's phenomenon, look for any abnormality in pulses of the affected hand/foot:
- Note whether there is atrial fibrillation/other cardiac dysrhythmia or murmur, or any other evidence of a cause for embolic disease.
- Look at the skin of the face for malar rash indicating systemic lupus erythematosus. Look for sclerodactyly, calcinosis or ulcer formation, and carefully seek evidence of vasculitic changes in the nail beds (magnification will help with this), suggesting progressive systemic sclerosis.
- Examine any joints that are sore, palpate the abdomen to exclude hepato/splenomegaly and check the lymph fields to detect any evidence of malignancy. Examine any other relevant systems if other underlying causes are possible - eg, chest examination if pulmonary malignancy is suspected.
Associated diseases causing secondary Raynaud's phenomenon
Arterial and vasospastic disorders
Many conditions may co-exist as above. The symptom complex is usually fairly distinctive, but other causes of vascular compromise may cause similar symptoms. If in doubt, consider vascular flow imaging/vascular surgical advice. Possible diagnoses that are not classically associated as causative diseases but which may cause symptoms that resemble Raynaud's phenomenon are:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome.
- Arterial thromboembolism.
- Cholesterol emboli.
- Thoracic outlet obstruction.
- Reflex sympathetic dystrophy (algodystrophy).
- In classically presenting primary Raynaud's phenomenon, in a young woman who is well and has no evidence of other causes on examination, you are unlikely to detect anything on investigation:
- It is probably worth checking FBC, antinuclear antibodies and CRP/ESR/plasma viscosity in this situation as basic screening for unrecognised associated disease. If there is reason to suspect an underlying cause then investigations should be directed to confirming or refuting the association as below:
- Consider U&E/liver function/thyroid function testing as the basic screening tests in appropriate patients. The presence of specific autoantibodies - eg, antinuclear antibodies - may suggest underlying inflammatory disease. Check plasma glucose for possible diabetes. Urine/serum protein electrophoresis, cold agglutinins and fibrinogen levels may identify hyperviscosity states. CXR (thoracic outlet views) may show a cervical rib.
- Refer patients with suspected secondary Raynaud's phenomenon for capillaroscopy if available. Other investigations performed in secondary care include infrared thermography, laser Doppler flowmetry, portable radiometry, and digital plethysmography.
Distinguishing between primary and secondary Raynaud's phenomenon
- Younger age (<30, but can be any age); female; genetic component (30% have an affected first-degree relative).
- No symptoms/signs of underlying disease; no tissue necrosis or gangrene; normal nail fold capillaries.
- Normal ESR; negative antineutrophil antibodies.
- Older age (>30, but can be any age); less common (10-20%).
- Symptoms and signs of underlying disease; tightness of finger skin; more severe pain; digital ischaemia (digital pitting scars, ulceration, or gangrene); abnormal nail fold capillaries.
- Raised ESR; positive antineutrophil antibodies or anti-extractable nuclear antigen antibodies.
Management of primary Raynaud's phenomenon
- Self-help measures
- Smoking cessation - this is the most important self-help measure.
- Avoid exposure to cold and take precautionary measures before exposure to cold; use gloves or electrically heated mittens in the winter (available from patient support groups via specialist outfitters - see 'Further reading & references' section, below).
- Change occupation/DIY habits if vibration is a likely underlying cause.
- Topical agents
- Evidence on topical nitrates is limited but studies have shown that:
- Topical glyceryl trinitrate applied to the dorsum of the finger results in digital vasodilatation with fewer systemic side-effects than with oral nitrates.
- Nitroglycerin applied to the affected finger reduces the severity of Raynaud's phenomenon but not the duration or frequency of attacks.
- Evidence on topical nitrates is limited but studies have shown that:
- Systemic agents
- Calcium-channel blockers: these are most widely used in the treatment of Raynaud's phenomenon. Nifedipine promotes relaxation of vascular smooth muscle cells and leads to vasodilatation.
- A Cochrane review found moderate-quality evidence that oral calcium-channel blockers are minimally effective in the treatment of primary Raynaud's phenomenon as measured by the frequency of attacks, and high-quality evidence that they have little effect on severity.
- Apart from calcium-channel blockers, there is no evidence for any beneficial effect of other vasodilator drugs (including angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors) on primary Raynaud's phenomenon.
- Intravenous prostaglandins: intravenous iloprost has been shown to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks.
- Surgical intervention may be considered for severe and disabling symptoms.
- Surgical interventions include arterial reconstruction, peripheral sympathectomy, embolectomy and ulcer debridement, or a combination of techniques.
- Cervical sympathectomy is no longer recommended..
Management of secondary Raynaud's phenomenon
Optimal management of the underlying cause can alleviate the symptoms but, unfortunately, many cases do not seem to respond well and persist despite best treatment of the precipitating illness. General/preventative measures are the same as for primary Raynaud's phenomenon as above. Those cases associated with progressive systemic sclerosis are often most troublesome and may lead to severe digital ischaemia and gangrene. See also the separate Systemic Sclerosis (Scleroderma) article.
When to refer
- Admit immediately if the person has severe ischaemia of one or more digits.
- All people with suspected secondary Raynaud's phenomenon (unless the cause is likely to be a drug which can be safely stopped).
- Children of 12 years or less with Raynaud's phenomenon.
- Most causes will be due to connective tissue disorders and referral to a rheumatologist would be appropriate. If an occupational cause is suspected, refer to an occupational medicine specialist.
Primary cases tend to do well after diagnosis and most patients learn to adapt to the condition, using basic measures ± vasodilators:
- An underlying disorder develops in 13% of cases of the primary form. Primary Raynaud's phenomenon may go into remission. Most patients have a stable course and over half improve over time.
- Secondary cases are more prone to be problematic - ulceration, scarring, or gangrene occur in 17% of people with Raynaud's phenomenon secondary to systemic sclerosis.
Severe cases may lead to digital infarction and gangrene with loss of the tissue of the finger pulp or distal phalanx. The skin may become chronically ischaemic and ulcerate. The digit(s) may lose viability and require amputation in the very worst cases.
Prevention of attacks
- Avoid smoking.
- Avoid beta-blocker treatment.
- Wear gloves or have them to hand at all times.
- Use specialist heated gloves if necessary.
- Anticipate exposure to cold and take appropriate ameliorative steps.
- Advise considering moving to warmer climes (particularly during the coldest months) if the condition is troublesome enough and the patient has the resources to do so.
- Avoid use of vibrating hand tools.
Further reading & references
- Herrick AL; The pathogenesis, diagnosis and treatment of Raynaud phenomenon. Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2012 Aug;8(8):469-79. doi: 10.1038/nrrheum.2012.96. Epub 2012 Jul 10.
- A. G. Maurice Raynaud; Whonamedit.com
- Goundry B, Bell L, Langtree M, et al; Diagnosis and management of Raynaud's phenomenon. BMJ. 2012 Feb 7;344:e289. doi: 10.1136/bmj.e289.
- Maverakis E, Patel F, Kronenberg DG, et al; International consensus criteria for the diagnosis of Raynaud's phenomenon. J Autoimmun. 2014 Feb-Mar;48-49:60-5. doi: 10.1016/j.jaut.2014.01.020. Epub 2014 Feb 1.
- Garner R, Kumari R, Lanyon P, et al; Prevalence, risk factors and associations of primary Raynaud's phenomenon: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ Open. 2015 Mar 16;5(3):e006389. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-006389.
- Chikura B, Moore TL, Manning JB, et al; Sparing of the thumb in Raynaud's phenomenon. Rheumatology (Oxford). 2008 Feb;47(2):219-21.
- Khouri C, Blaise S, Carpentier P, et al; Drug-induced Raynaud's phenomenon: beyond beta-blockers. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2016 Mar 7. doi: 10.1111/bcp.12912.
- Landry GJ; Current medical and surgical management of Raynaud's syndrome. J Vasc Surg. 2013 Jun;57(6):1710-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jvs.2013.03.012. Epub 2013 Apr 23.
- Ennis H, Hughes M, Anderson ME, et al; Calcium channel blockers for primary Raynaud's phenomenon. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Feb 25;2:CD002069. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD002069.pub5.
- Stewart M, Morling JR; Oral vasodilators for primary Raynaud's phenomenon. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012 Jul 11;7:CD006687. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006687.pub3.
- Smith J; Focused assessment with sonography in trauma (FAST): should its role be reconsidered? Postgrad Med J. 2010 May;86(1015):285-91. doi: 10.1136/pgmj.2008.076711. Epub 2010 Apr 3.
- Raynaud's phenomenon; NICE CKS, April 2014 (UK access only)
- Jackson CM; The patient with cold hands: understanding Raynaud's disease. JAAPA. 2006 Nov;19(11):34-8.
- Herrick A; Raynaud's Phenomenon. Curr Treat Options Cardiovasc Med. 2008 Apr;10(2):146-55.
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Dr Laurence Knott
Dr Colin Tidy
Prof Cathy Jackson