My extreme reaction to Calgary’s cold temperatures stems from Raynaud’s disease

Putting a new key on my keychain. Holding a cold fruit for too long. Opening a cold beer can. Digging in the freezer for the last ice pop. Shoveling the driveway. Scraping off a snowy car.

These are some of the tasks that are momentarily unpleasant for anyone, but that are now almost impossible for me – causing unbearable pain, numbness and discoloration in my fingers lasting hours upon hours.

This extreme reaction began to happen this year, around wintertime. In some of the worst moments of it, my fingers feel thick, swollen and sprained – but look dead and lifeless.

I’ve always been the girl who’s, “so cold” and has the heat up, “crazy high” in my car. Poor circulation runs on my mom’s side of the family, so I just took these new, uncomfortable reactions as an unfortunate repercussion of that. I didn’t seek medical help.Raynaud’s disease calls for constant protection and awareness. Limited blood supply to the fingertips proves difficulties in daily life.

Photo courtesy of Niklas D/Wikimedia Commons

However, upon a trip to the doctor for a shot, my very attentive general practitioner noticed the extreme discoloration in my fingers and sent me off to do some testing.

Surprised to learn a diagnosis was even possible, I went off to do the required blood work and arterial ultrasounds to find that I have Raynaud’s disease.

What is it?

Dr. Dianne Mosher, division head of rheumatology for University of Calgary, says that Raynaud’s is, “a condition where the blood vessels in the extremities reversibly constrict during cold temperatures and emotional stress. The fingers will become cold, painful, and turn either white, purple or blue.”

It is definitely painful, sometimes beyond description, and Mosher says that the source of that internal pain as deriving from, “the extreme lack of blood supply to a tissue.”

I found it important to discover from my doctor that there are two forms of Raynaud’s, both primary, known as the “disease,” and secondary, known as the, “phenomenon.” Although the word disease sounds much scarier, it turns out primary Raynaud’s is, “much less serious and acts alone, where as secondary Raynaud’s phenomenon implies there is an accompanying disease that has caused the Raynaud’s to appear,” according to Mosher.

Which form of the Raynaud’s invades my poor little bony fingers isn’t fully confirmed yet, as I am awaiting blood work to assure there are no other accompanying diseases. The encouraging words of my doctor imply the Raynaud’s is acting alone, as I only experience the painful sensations in my fingers rather than my toes, nose and ears. If I were experiencing the acute discomfort and discoloration in more than my fingers, “It would be right to do further testing to assure there are no more accompanying diseases,” says Mosher.

Good thing my doctor is thorough. “Undiagnosed Raynaud’s phenomenon can lead to ulcers on the finger tips and even gangrene if there is not enough blood supply,” Mosher says.

Whether the reactions are considered major or minor, according to the government of Canada’s Occupational Health and Safety statistics, I am one of the lucky 4 per 10,000 Canadians experiencing the unfortunate setbacks to daily life in a cold environment.

Not much you can do

I found my diagnosis to be quite a fluid and quick process. But, I wondered what it was like for others.

“I was just glad to finally have a name for it,” Deb Ashton, a mother of 2, says of the symptoms. “When my fingers would turn white and be so painful, no one took it seriously. I couldn’t even untie my soccer shoes after a cold game.” Ashton was diagnosed over 12 years ago.

I found relief in learning there was a diagnosis, however I still had all these questions. I’m feeling invaded, having a disorder and not knowing why it’s present in my body. The answers I have been getting from doctors and experts alike — to no fault of their own — remain a bit unclear.

“The cause of primary Raynaud’s — the one that acts alone — is still unknown. It’s highly believed to be hereditary,” says Mosher. I’m 21, and she adds that this is right around the age when connective tissue disorders start appearing. Again, “No one knows why.”

She says that secondary causes are much more clear, as symptoms usually appear after frostbite injury, trauma, or accompanying connective tissue diseases.

Taking necessary measures

Mosher says there has been no one good solution in terms of medication for Raynaud’s, and that there’s no cure, just preventative measures to take.

For me, that means shopping for fun little things like heated mittens, heated blankets and beer-can sleeves.

The condition is definitely not life threatening, but boy is it a nuisance. The odds are definitely against my favor because Raynaud’s reactions can be triggered from both cold temperatures and stressful situations. I am a student and live in Calgary – stress and cold sum me up.

I usually experience my Raynaud’s on a daily basis, especially in the winter, but it will be minor if I can whip on a mitten or run my hand under warm water before the blood supply is extremely cut off.

There are silver linings to everything. Upon this diagnosis, I finally have a reason to demand that automatic car starter I’ve always wanted– and I will never ever agree to shovel the walk again. I can honestly say, “It’s dangerous to my health.”

vpocza@cjournal.ca