Raynaud’s Phenomenon Disorder has been haunting me since I was a teenager. When winter rears its ugly head, my hands and feet start to overreact to the cold, often going numb, getting frostbite, and feeling extremely painful when the blood eventually rushes back in.
Until I found a fix last year, that is. In this article and video I discuss the disease and how I’ve managed to make it a nonissue.
A trip to the doctor got me a diagnosis of Raynaud’s Phenomenon Disorder, which is a condition where your body overreacts to cold by constricting your arteries, and therefore the flow of blood to them, particularly in your hands and feet. In the best case scenario its uncomfortable and inconvenient. In the worse case scenario is makes using your hands in cold temperatures practically impossible, opens you up to frostbite, and is very painful when blood eventually rushes back into your constricted fingers.
There are multiple theories as to why it happens, but no one knows why for sure. Several treatments have been proposed, but they’re generally unsuccessful. People who suffer from it (estimated to be 1 in 20 people) are told to keep warm, and that’s about the best that medical science has to offer.
Over the years I’ve tried a lot of experiments to see if I could beat Raynaud’s Phenomenon Disorder (often incidentally as part of another issue I was working on), but nothing worked. Fasting for 26 days? Nope. Eating a raw vegan diet? Nope. Meditation? Nope. Breathing exercises and visualizations? Nope.
I’ve even tried replicating a few experiments that seemed to help some people in lab conditions, such as these two that used warm water for the hands while the rest of the body was exposed to cold. After multiple repetitions of this, the chance of a Raynaud’s attack was reduced12. Unfortunately, although this method helped the subjects of the studies, it didn’t seem to do anything for me.
The Raynaud’s Phenomenon Ice Water Treatment
But last year I was reading an interview with Dr. Fredrick Wigley of Johns Hopkins Medical School, which gave an extremely brief mention to an apparently unpublished study done by Wigley which had Raynaud’s patients put their hands in freezers. Every repeated bout in the freezer actually reduced the risk of a Raynaud’s attack. The first freezer session trigged a reaction 70% of the time, the second, 50 percent of the time, and during the third visit, 30 percent of the time, according to the interview.
Using the very thing that causes the negative reaction to build up, “tolerance,” and reduce the risk of the further reactions is an interesting idea that has a long history of use in medicine.
Hormesis is the idea that causing manageable amounts of stress will catalyze an adaptation response that will leave you healthier than you were before the stress. This is why exercise and fasting work so well against disease, for instance.
I tried the freezer approach, but it didn’t work for me. I had a Raynaud’s attack in 10 out of 10 attempts to stick my hand in the freezer.
But this got me thinking, and I wondered if maybe I wasn’t thinking stressful enough. After all, my freezer isn’t that much colder than the winter air that had been triggering attacks in me for years.
So I decided to go with ice water….Eeek! I know.
What I’ve found is that a few weeks of submerging my hands and feet in ice water for 10 minutes a day seems to have stopped my attacks, even though the winter air in Austin, Texas, where I live, has been cold enough to trigger attacks.
Ice Water Vs Raynaud’s Phenomenon: How I Do it
*Warning. This method is uncomfortable, and if you have a significant case of Raynaud’s you may be risking frostbite. Use at your own risk*
I get a big bowl or pot and fill it with water, and then stick this in the fridge to get cold. I take out three large bottles of frozen water from my freezer and put them in the bowl about 15 minutes before I intend to start. This will leave the water very cold, but I’ve never measured the temperature. I get a towel ready, set an alarm for 8-10 minutes (I’ve experimented with both, and find 10 minutes might work slightly better, but I’m not positive) and then stick my hands or feet in.
This is uncomfortable but bearable, and interesting enough, seems to get better as time goes on rather than worse. My first session triggered a Raynaud’s attack, but it seemed to be fading by the time 10 minutes had past. This was interesting, because I’ve never had my hands warm up on their own without removing them from the source of cold.
After more than a week straight of nightly cold immersions, I was still having minor Raynaud’s attacks on my bare hands when I went outside into the night air, which was only averaging about °38F (The attacks are generally not severe at temps this high, which is one of the reasons I like Austin).
But after several weeks the attacks totally stopped, which still seems miraculous to me. Even the frigid ice water doesn’t trigger an attack anymore.
It would be inconvenient to have to keep doing the immersions forever, so in a month or so I intend to roll back to twice a week cold immersions and see if I can get away with reduced frequency.
Ice Water Results On Raynaud’s Phenomenon Disorder
Here are some of the key differences I’ve noticed:
* Even immediately after pulling my hands out of the ice water, and definitely after coming inside from cold outside air, I have immediate use of my fingers. I can type on a keyboard or pick something small up off the ground easily. Previously, my fingers would be so numb and immobile that I might struggle to maneuver the keys into my front door so I could unlock it.
* My hands and feet are still probably colder than your average person. If you shook my hand in the cold, you’d notice it was a bit colder than average, but certainly not the frozen husks that my hands used to be after time outside in the cold. Even if it doesn’t turn my hands and feet into furnaces, it is making a significant improvement in my quality of life while in cold climates.
*I was pretty pleased to be able to wear sandals out on a cold, rainy morning last week with no attack in my feet. My feet were still cold, but no attack was triggered.
* I initially started experimenting with this last year, but stopped because I spent half the winter in Mexico. I had seen improvements by that time, but this year I had to start over again with the same level of Raynaud’s attack. My guess is that the adaptation will never be permanent. Perhaps it’s like exercise’s improvement of disease risk and symptoms: use it or lose it. I’m not sure how often you’d need do the immersions to keep Raynaud’s Phenomenon Disorder at bay.
I hope that helps someone. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve found a similar strategy works for you.