Healthbeat Report: Help for Cold Hands

December 9, 2010 (CHICAGO)

Relief is possible from some unlikely treatments.

The Midwest winter makes keeping our hands warm a challenge. But what if your digits get icy cold and seem to stay that way for hours? Some people even have the problem all year round. It was happening to Erinn Connelly.

"Started with the two right fingers here. These two digits started turning snow white in July. Just the tips and then it started working its way up," said Connelly.

Connelly says she's always been a person who chills easily. But when her hands started changing colors she knew it was serious. She is now getting relief at the Cold Hand Clinic at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

So, how do you know if your cold hands are a sign of something more?

"Cold hands after a cold exposure is a normal, physiological phenomenon. However, it should not take more than 20 minutes to warm your hands," said Dr. Nadera Sweiss, rheumatologist, University of Chicago Medical Center.

When the body is chilled, smaller vessels in the skin constrict and blood is redirected from the arteries near the surface to those deeper in the body. For most people, once they get back in a warm environment normal flow returns. But hands that don't warm up could be a signal of a problem with your blood circulation or the vessels.

"There are multiple diseases that could cause cold hands," said Dr. Sweiss.

Heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, arthritis, anemia, underactive thyroid, diabetes, even smoking or injury can be the underlying cause. Autoimmune diseases such as scleroderma and lupus can also affect the hands. And one of the more common vascular diseases linked to cold hands is Raynauds. It's what Connelly was finally diagnosed with.

Doctors even suspect the decreased blood flow from Raynaud's disease was affecting other parts of her body and may have been responsible for six miscarriages she suffered in between her successful pregnancies.

Raynauds causes smaller arteries to narrow limiting blood circulation. And one unlikely treatment: Botox. The same medication used to smooth wrinkles can temporarily stop vessels from constricting. Connelly says her hands are pinker and warmers since getting the shots in October. Doctors are now trying it on her cold feet.

"Botox can paralyze the blood vessels and allow them to dilate and allow more blood to flow to the fingers," said Dr. Sweiss.

There are no FDA-approved treatments for cold hand syndrome so physicians may use medications off label such as Botox, Prozac and even impotence drugs such as Cialis or Viagra seem to help get the blood flowing in the hands. In the most serious cases surgery is also an option.

Besides being an annoyance and painful, the lost circulation can lead to ulcers and gangrene.

"Even if you have a minimal problem, you could get that treated and live a more fuller life," said Dr. Ginard Henry, plastic surgeon, University of Chicago Medical Center.

Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago also has a cold hand clinic.

Having chilly hands isn't reason for alarm. It can be a normal physiological response. Doctors say just being stressed out can make your hands cold. It's time to seek medical guidance, according to experts, when the problem doesn't go away. And one thing doctors stress is if you have an issue with cold hands prevention is key. Once you let your hands get cold, you're making yourself susceptible to problems.

Cold Hand Clinic
University of Chicago Medical Center

Weiss Memorial Hospital
Dr. Ginard Henry
Dr. Lawrence Zachary

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