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Surviving Winter With Raynaud’s

by Karen Ung

Although Raynaud’s attacks can be very painful, it is possible to enjoy winter activities with the right gear. Here are some tips on surviving winter with Raynaud’s phenomenon.

“Chilling” at Lake Louise in -20 C

If the cold makes your fingers turn white and blue and feel like they’ve been smashed with a sledgehammer, you might have Raynaud’s. I’ve had the symptoms since I was little, but my parents blamed them on bad circulation. Teachers would grasp my snowman-white fingers at the door after recess and say, “Cold hands, warm heart.” My mom found me special glove and sock liners, but my hands still hurt. It wasn’t until a few years ago that a doctor saw my funky colored fingers on a chilly day and asked, “Do you have Raynaud’s?” Suddenly my severe reactions to the cold (wanting to cry when it was +5C and I’d forgotten my gloves) made sense. While one way of dealing with Raynaud’s is to avoid cold; by dressing properly, it is definitely possible to stay active and pain-free in winter!

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What is Raynaud’s?

Raynaud’s is an abnormal response to cold (or stress) that “causes an interruption of blood flow to the fingers, toes, nose, and/or ears when a spasm occurs in the blood vessels of these areas.”1 The spasms can cause pain, tingling, numbness, swelling, and color changes in your extremities. Typically, your fingers (or other affected parts) will turn white, then blue, then a bright shade of red when they warm up. If your hands get white and red blotches in the cold, that is a normal response and not an indication of Raynaud’s. Known as Raynaud’s disease, syndrome, and phenomenon, the symptoms are the same, but causes vary. If you suspect you have Raynaud’s, speak to your doctor to rule out underlying conditions that could be causing it. About 5-10% of Americans are affected by Raynaud’s.2.

I had to wear lots of layers (base layer, down jacket, down vest, and shell) on this chilly day at an ice cave, but it was worth it!

Risks & Treatment

Besides causing pain, Raynaud’s increases the risk of frostbite and sores (and in extreme cases, gangrene)3, so care must be taken to keep extremities covered and warm. While some Raynaud’s sufferers may benefit from medication (vasodilators), topical treatments, or surgery, the vast majority manage their symptoms with lifestyle changes.

Preventing Raynaud’s Attacks

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, but am sharing what has worked for me in dealing with Raynaud’s.

Raynaud’s spasms occur when your body gets cold, not just when your extremities are cold. While being outside in the cold is a bigger challenge to those with Raynaud’s, there are things you can do to help prevent Raynaud’s attacks:

  • Keep your whole body warm by dressing in layers and wearing a hat:
  • Wear gloves or mittens to protect your fingers:
    • Mittens are far warmer than gloves, and are recommended for temperatures below 0 Celsius. If I’m cross country skiing in cold weather, I start out in mitts, and switch to gloves before my hands get sweaty (and stash my mitts in my pack for breaks/emergencies). Look for mittens with large gauntlets to tighten over sleeves to keep cold air out, and that are large enough to fit touchscreen liner gloves and hand warmers. Touchscreen liner gloves are a must so you don’t expose bare skin to the elements when it’s time to take a photo or answer the phone!
    • Recommended mitts for cold weather: Baffin Polar Mitts (-30 C? Could not find temperature rating on mine but they’re very warm), Black Diamond Mercury Mitts (-20 C/10 ºF), Black Diamond Recon Mitts (-20 C/10 ºF), Black Diamond Super Light Mitts (-25/10 °F), or Black Diamond Absolute Mitts (-28 C / -40 F).
  • Carry air activated, hand warmers and toe warmers in case your mitts or footwear aren’t warm enough. I buy them by the case! There are also reuseable and battery powered hand and foot warmers, but you do not want to rely on these in the backcountry (it takes time/fuel to boil water to reactivate the reusable ones and for the latter, you have to extra batteries). Available at Amazon and MEC.
  • Wear wool socks and winter boots to protect your toes.
    • Make sure footwear isn’t too small as tight footwear can restrict circulation! When purchasing boots, try them on with the socks you usually wear.
    • I like Bridgedale WoolFusion Trekker Socks (shown below), and Smartwool socks, but also have several pairs of inexpensive Kirkland merino wool hiking socks.
  • Wear ski goggles and a face mask, balaclava, or merino wool Buff in cold weather. This will protect your face and reduce the risk of frostbite – and prevent your eyelashes from freezing together when it’s below -20.
  • Avoid handling cold items directly. Drink cold drinks from a double walled travel cup instead of a glass or hold the glass with a napkin. 
  • Minimize caffeine consumption and don’t smoke. Caffeine and smoking narrow blood vessels and exacerbate Raynaud’s. 
  • Maintain body temperature by eating regularly and staying hydrated. “Moderate dehydration can cause cold hands and feet.”4 
  • Manage stress. Stress can also trigger Raynaud’s spasms, so learn relaxation techniques or consider taking up meditation. 
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise improves circulation and also keeps you warm. 
  • Keep moving. Avoid standing or sitting around in the cold and keep moving as much as possible. Make big arm circles or roll your shoulders forward and clap your hands together (low to get blood into them).
If you forget goggles, you’ll get EYEcicles (coined by Erin from AK On The Go)

I hope these tips will help you enjoy winter as much as I do! It took me a few years to get used to Alberta’s cold winters, but once I got cold weather gear and took up winter sports, I started to enjoy winter activities.

How do you deal with Raynaud’s?


For More Information

Visit Raynauds.org

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