Raynaud phenomenon is a condition in which the body’s normal response to cold or emotional stress is exaggerated, resulting in abnormal spasms (vasospasms) in small blood vessels called arterioles. The disorder mainly affects the fingers but can also involve the ears, nose, nipples, knees, or toes. The vasospasms reduce blood circulation, leading to discomfort and skin color changes.
Raynaud phenomenon is episodic, meaning that it comes and goes. A typical episode lasts about 15 minutes after the cold exposure or stressor has ended and involves mild discomfort such as numbness or a feeling of “pins and needles.” The affected areas usually turn white or blue when exposed to cold or when emotional stress occurs, and then turn red when re-warmed or when the stress eases.
Raynaud phenomenon is categorized as primary when there is no underlying disorder that accounts for the exaggerated response of the blood vessels. It is called secondary when it is associated with another condition. Secondary Raynaud phenomenon is often associated with autoimmune disorders, which occur when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body’s own tissues and organs. Autoimmune disorders with which Raynaud phenomenon can be associated include systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren syndrome.
Primary Raynaud phenomenon is much more common and usually less severe than secondary Raynaud phenomenon. In severe cases of secondary Raynaud phenomenon, sores on the pads of the fingers or tissue death () can occur. Primary Raynaud phenomenon often begins between the ages of 15 and 25, while secondary Raynaud phenomenon usually starts after age 30. Some people with Raynaud phenomenon alone later go on to develop another associated condition; regardless of which comes first, these cases are classified as secondary Raynaud phenomenon.