My fingers often feel like icy claws, especially at work. Do I have bad circulation?
There could be several explanations for your cold hands, but thankfully, it’s unlikely that they’re a sign of imminent heart failure.
Many people suspect they have Raynaud’s disease, a condition that makes fingers and toes feel cold in response to low temperatures or stress — but unless they’re having extreme symptoms, they’re probably wrong, says Martha Gulati, M.D., cardiology chief at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.
“The classic sign of Raynaud’s is where your fingers truly turn white with cold exposure,” says Gulati. “When you see it happen it’s quite dramatic.” She says doctors don’t fully understand why this occurs, but they believe that arteries to fingers and toes constrict for some reason, temporarily limiting blood supply. (They’re supposed to dilate in cold environments so blood can keep your extremities warm — the reason your nose and cheeks get pink in the winter.)
People with Raynaud’s experience their hands first turning red, then sometimes blue because they’re not getting enough blood. Finally, your fingers begin to appear ghostly white and can hurt, Gulati says. (The same often happens in the toes, but people tend to notice their hands first.) A class of drugs called vasodilators can provide relief, but they can also cause leg swelling in some people.
People might have Raynaud’s on its own, as the result of another medical condition (like scleroderma, lupus, or hypothyroidism), or from smoking or taking certain prescription meds like beta blockers or decongestants like Sudafed. This is known as secondary Raynaud’s. Primary Raynaud’s could be partially hereditary, but that isn’t clear yet, she says.
It can be hard for people with the condition to warm their hands back up, and they can actually develop ulcers because of reduced blood flow. Gulati says it’s important to be well-dressed for things like snow shoveling or running outside in the winter — those hand-warmer packets marketed to campers and skiers might help.
But if you don’t have red palms and white fingers or any of those underlying conditions, you could just be sitting too damn long. When we sit, our metabolism slows down, which makes us less warm. “If I’m active on the floor, seeing my patients, I don’t remember that I’m cold. But if I’m sitting in my office I’m usually shaking and cool,” Dr. Gulati says. “I think it’s a circulatory issue. It’s a reminder to me when I’m getting cold to get up and move. Usually circulation comes back and I’m fine. I never have those white fingers that you see in Raynaud’s, I’m just cold.”
Of course, some people in the office will always want the office AC cranked up while others drape themselves in desk blankets. To a certain extent, it’s easier for others to pile on layers than have the warm-blooded ones strip down to inappropriate levels of dress. But if you have a co-worker with Raynaud’s, Gulati advises being more sensitive to the temperature for their sake.
“They’re obviously having a bigger issue,” she says. “Depending on what their job is, maybe working with gloves makes it harder for them to do their job.”