“Your hands are cold!”
Have you ever heard those words?
If you’re like most people living in Wisconsin, you’ve experienced cold hands at some point during the winter months.
It’s true cold hands mean a warm heart.
Most people experience cold hands as their bodies respond to lower temperatures. To protect critical brain, heart, and lung function, the surrounding muscles constrict the arteries and decrease blood flow to the extremities (arms, legs, hands, and feet). At the same time, blood flow to the internal organs increases. This process is called vasoconstriction.
A symptom of this involuntary response is cold hands, confirming the adage “cold hands, warm heart.”
But is it normal, to have cold hands while sitting in a warm living room or on a lawn chair on a hot summer’s day?
In some cases, cold hands are symptomatic of other problems.
According to the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH), cold hands may indicate a more serious condition, such as Raynaud’s disease, diabetes, or blocked blood vessels.
- Cold hands in warm temperatures
- Fingers that change color (white, red, or blue)
- Achy fingers when exposed to cold. Some people need to wear gloves when handling frozen meat.
- Slow healing cuts and cracks.
People who frequently experience cold hands because of decreased blood flow may be at a higher risk of skin ulcers or necrosis, the death of soft tissues.
What causes cold hand syndrome?
Circulation problems are the culprit that causes cold hands.
Sometimes, it’s the body’s normal response. At other times, blocked arteries in the wrists and hands are blamed. This condition is known as vaso-occlusion.
Frostbite, blood clots, cuts, broken bones, puncture wounds, and other injuries to the hand or wrist can interfere with blood flow and cause cold hand syndrome. Diseases can also hinder blood flow. The inflammation of arthritis and the thickening of blood vessels, also known as arteriosclerosis, narrow the arteries and restrict blood flow.
If your fingers turn white, blue, or red, you may be experiencing Raynaud’s disease, carpal tunnel syndrome, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, or have a tumor causing blockage.
Raynaud’s disease is caused by a faulty nervous system response. As muscles in the hand contracts involuntarily, they decrease blood flow to the fingers. People suffering from Raynaud’s disease often experience numbness as their fingers turn white, red, or blue. While the symptoms of this condition are easy to recognize, more study is needed to determine what causes this spontaneous response.
The danger of cold hands.
Your heart circulates blood continuously to and from every cell in your body. As blood flows from your heart to your hands, it travels through two main arteries: one on the inside of your arm (radial artery) and one on the outside of your arm (ulnar artery). These arteries join in the hand and transport oxygen-rich blood to each finger. Normal blood flow results in warm hands. Restricted blood flow causes cold hands. When the blood flow decreases enough to change the color of the skin, it indicates a serious circulatory deficiency. If the cells in the fingers are starved for oxygen-rich blood for too long, the tissues will begin to die.
Is there a treatment for cold hands?
There are some things that you can do at home to keep your hands warm and healthy.
- Wash your hands frequently and moisturize often to prevent infections and cracked skin.
- Wear mittens or gloves to keep your hands warm in cold environments.
- Stop smoking. Smoking constricts your blood vessels.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
If self-care does not address the problem, it may be time to make an appointment with your primary care provider.
A medical professional may prescribe medications to relax the muscles surrounding the blood vessels, dilate the blood vessels, or thin the blood’s viscosity. A hand specialist may recommend physical therapy to restore circulation, increase hand strength or function, and reduce or eliminate pain.
In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove blood clots, repair malfunctioning blood vessels, or redirect blood flow and increase blood flow to the hands and fingers. If necrosis (tissue death) has occurred in the fingers, amputation and soft-tissue reconstruction may be necessary to prevent a more serious condition. Surgery can restore motion and function.
When should I call a doctor?
If your hands become cold, assess your environment. Are your cold hands your body’s response to external temperatures? If so, there’s nothing to worry about. Put on mittens or gloves to prevent frostbite and keep your hands and fingers warmer.
However, if your hands are ice cold when the temperature around you is higher than 72 degrees, you may have a medical condition that needs treatment.
If you have hand pain that lasts longer than 72 hours or if you experience the symptoms of cold hand syndrome on a frequent basis, we recommend contacting your healthcare provider or a hand specialist for diagnosis and treatment.