Winter started in a big way in Interior Alaska. One day, I was frolicking in the fall leaves (by "frolicking," I mean taking pictures of from my car); the next, we were buried in a foot of snow. I love snow, love winter, but the sharp change in temperature was all it took for another flare-up of my Raynaud’s.
Raynaud’s (pronounced ray-NODES) Phenomenon occurs when the blood vessels in your extremities constrict and remain that way for a few seconds to a few hours, causing persistent chilly fingers and toes, numbing, and painful joint movement. There are two levels of Raynaud’s, the most common referred to as "primary"; the cause is unknown, and it’s typically less severe. Secondary Raynaud’s is less common, but a more severe form that can be caused by an underlying health condition like arthritis or lupus.
I’ve always been a really forgetful person; as a kid, I lost my gloves so many times that my mom just gave me mismatched socks from pairs that had lost their twin to wear on my hands instead. I never wore gloves. I would often run them under warm water because frostbite had set in. Whatever—I was building a snow fort.
At the age of 25, I bought my first pair of gloves; I kept them until they were more hole than glove.
Why this sudden switch to wearing gloves? Because I went to a doctor for the first time in 200 years and they told me I had juvenile arthritis in my fingers and hands. Sweet, right? Even better, it was my own damn fault: all that exposure to cold when I was younger damaged the blood vessels in my fingertips, toes and heels. I had Secondary Raynaud’s.
Having Raynaud’s is a bummer. It essentially means that if, we were to have a jovial snowball fight, and we each made snowballs with our hands, you could rub your hands together, they’d turn pink, and maybe get a little hot, and then get warm. My hands, however, would be whitish-yellow or maybe even purple. I might lose feeling in the tips, and they’d tingle and stay cold, even inside, hours later.
Even in milder weather, my hands might burn and clench, especially if water’s involved. When I worked as a dockside sampler in Southeast Alaska, I had to regularly handle and collect samples from big, slimy salmon. So I came up with a few ways to help ease the Raynaud’s and up my dexterity.
Little Hotties Hand Warmers
Little Hotties are activated charcoal warmers that produce heat via mystical chemical reaction. They come in all shapes and sizes, and are really cheap if you buy them in bulk on Amazon. Instead of putting them in my mittens, I’ll stash them in my pockets. I used to be a weird snob about them, but they stay warm for up to six hours.
Don’t be a Caveman
Using tools instead of stressing my hands is something that I’ve ironically picked up after developing arthritis from using my hands instead of tools. I’m talking using a carabiner handle to clip and carry grocery bags, or scissors to open that surprisingly burly packet of crisps. And wipe the snow off your car with a brush, not your hand, you lazy oaf.
Make a Buckwheat Warming Pillow
You can hand-sew a simple pillow, fill it with buckwheat, then nuke it in the microwave. Rest your hands on it, or put it on the floor so you can nestle cold toes under it during a marathon of Peepshow. It's just about the cheapest thing you can do to alleviate the symptoms. Bonus points: embroider an angry little face on it.
Take Supplements that Stimulate Circulation
Turmeric has been used for thousands of years in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine to treat joint inflammation and poor circulation. Turns out, turmeric extracts are actually very effective at reducing joint pain and inflammation when taken regularly as a supplement. Not all supplements are created equal, though; check that your turmeric supplement contains isolated curcumin, and not just turmeric.
Get Awesome Mittens
Spend some time or money and get some mittens or gloves that you really love and that do the job. If you’re broke, re-purpose an old sweater into cute mittens and line them with scrap fleece. If you’re into vintage gloves, look for men’s sizes and styles, not just because they are easier to find and generally cheaper, but because vintage women’s gloves are sized for itty-bitty vintage lady hands.
While Raynaud’s is oddly common—it affects about 10% of the adult population—it’s not really well known. We tend to talk about having cold hands or toes, and chalk it up to just “bad circulation” and not take it very seriously. Poor circulation is a rather serious health indicator, though; it’s a symptom of high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, and shouldn’t be ignored.
Take care of yourself, dammit!