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Raynaud's Phenomenon

What is Raynaud's phenomenon?

Raynaud's phenomenon, sometimes called Raynaud's syndrome or disease, is a disorder of blood circulation in the fingers and toes (and less commonly of the ears and nose). This condition aggravates with cold exposure. Exposure to cold abnormally reduces blood circulation causing the skin to become pale, waxy-white or purple. The disorder is sometimes called "white finger", "wax finger" or "dead finger."

Raynaud's phenomenon has many different causes including workplace exposures. Occupationally, it is most commonly associated with "hand-arm vibration syndrome" but it is also involved in other occupational diseases. It is important to know the signs and symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon and the workplace hazards that cause it. Awareness can help prevent the disorder from occurring or progressing to a serious stage. If not detected in the early stages, the disorder can permanently impair blood circulation in the fingers.

Although Raynaud's phenomenon is not life threatening, severe cases cause disability and may force workers to leave their jobs. Although rare, severe cases can lead to breakdown of the skin and gangrene. Less severely affected workers sometimes have to change their social activities and work habits to avoid attacks of white finger.

Why Raynaud's phenomenon occurs is not well understood. Usually, the body conserves heat by reducing blood circulation to the extremities, particularly the hands and feet. This response uses a complex system of nerves and muscles to control blood flow through the smallest blood vessels in the skin. In people with Raynaud's phenomenon, this control system becomes too sensitive to cold and greatly reduces blood flow in the fingers and toes. Blood flow can also be reduced by adrenaline that is released during times of high stress or anxiety. Damage to either the muscles or nerves that control blood flow may cause Raynaud's phenomenon.

What are the signs and symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon?

Attacks of poor blood circulation in the fingers are the most noticeable symptom of Raynaud's phenomenon. These attacks occur when the hands or the whole body get cold either at work or at home or from stress. Household or leisure activities resulting in cold exposure include washing a car, holding a cold steering wheel of a car, or the cold handlebars of a bicycle. Attacks of white finger can also occur when a person is outdoors watching sports, or while gardening, fishing or golfing in cold weather.

Typical attacks occur when cold or emotionally upset. Symptoms usually include:

  • Tingling and slight loss of feeling or numbness in the fingers, toes, nose or ears.
  • Blanching or whitening of the fingers, usually without affecting the thumb.
  • Blue skin that feels cold and numb.
  • Numb, prickly feeling or stinging pain, sometimes with redness, upon warming or relief of stress.
  • Sequence of colour changes in the skin may progress from white to blue to red.

Occupationally induced Raynaud's phenomenon gradually gets worse if workers remain exposed to the condition that cause the problem. As the disorder gets worse, the attacks become stronger and more frequent. So it is extremely important to recognize the signs and symptoms in the early stages.

The Stockholm Workshop classification is often used to rate vibration-induced conditions. In this classification, vascular (blood flow) changes and neural (feeling of touch, heat, cold, etc.) changes are considered separately [see Tables 1(a) and 1(b)].

Table 1(a)
The Stockholm Workshop classification scale for
cold-induced vascular (blood flow) symptoms
in fingers with hand-arm vibration syndrome
Stage Grade Description
0 (none) No attacks
1 Mild

Occasional attacks affecting only the tips of one or more fingers

2 Moderate

Occasional attacks affecting finger tips and middle of the finger and rarely also the finger parts close to the palm

3 Severe Frequent attacks affecting most fingers
4 Very Severe

Same symptoms as in stage 3 with degenerate skin changes in the finger tips.


Table 1(b)
The Stockholm Workshop classification scale for
sensorineural changes in fingers due to
hand-arm vibration syndrome
Stage Symptoms
OSN Exposed to vibration but no symptoms
1SN Intermittent numbness, with or without tingling
2SN Intermittent or persistent numbness, reduced sensory perception

Intermittent or persistent numbness, reduced tactile discrimination and/or manipulative dexterity

Source: Gemne, G., et al. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health. Vol. 13, no. 4 (1987). p. 275-278.

What causes Raynaud's phenomenon?

The exact cause of Raynaud's phenomenon is not known. Raynaud's phenomenon affects more women than men. Some people have this phenomenon for reasons that cannot be determined. This is called "primary Raynaud's phenomenon," "Raynaud's disease" or "constitutional white finger." It usually affects both hands equally.

People can also get Raynaud's phenomenon because of certain underlying diseases (e.g. scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus) or injuries. This form is known as "secondary Raynaud's phenomenon."

Within the workplace, several hazards can cause secondary Raynaud's phenomenon. Exposure to vibration from power tools is by far the greatest concern. Hand-held power tools such as chain saws, jackhammers and pneumatic rock drillers and chippers can cause "hand-arm vibration syndrome." This disorder is also known as "vibration-induced white finger", "hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS)", or "Raynaud's phenomenon of occupational origin." Raynaud's phenomenon, however, is only one aspect of the hand-arm vibration syndrome. Vibration also damages nerves, muscles, bones and joints of the hand and arm.

In early years, before the cancer-causing effects of vinyl chloride were known, workers exposed to high levels of this chemical experienced Raynaud's phenomenon. It also caused breakdown of the bones of the fingertips, and other health problems. Raynaud's phenomenon from vinyl chloride is now an unlikely occurrence in Canada since exposure to this chemical is controlled much better than in the past.

Raynaud's phenomenon is also seen in typists and professional pianists from repeated finger stress, as well as in dentists and dental technicians. Frostbite injury with damage to the blood vessels can also cause Raynaud's phenomenon. A single study reports that fish plant workers developed Raynaud's phenomenon after continually chilling and rewarming their hands several times a day over a period of years.

A few studies have suggested that gripping a hand tool too tightly could cause Raynaud's phenomenon. Other isolated studies have identified Raynaud's phenomenon in workers who injured their hands by using them for hammering, or pushing or twisting heavy objects. In these cases, Raynaud's phenomenon was part of a disorder called hypothenar hammer syndrome.

How long does it take for Raynaud's phenomenon to develop?

The time between first contact with the hazardous condition and the appearance of Raynaud's phenomenon is known as the latent period. This varies according to the type of hazard, the amount of exposure and the individual worker. Some people are more susceptible than others.

The latent period for vibration exposure can be as short as one year. As a general rule, severe exposure reduces the latent period. If the latent period for a group of workers is short, the disorder tends to appear more frequently. Also, in individuals with a short latent period, Raynaud's phenomenon tends to progress to advanced stages faster.

What workers are at risk of Raynaud's phenomenon?

Raynaud's phenomenon is primarily a concern for workers who handle vibrating tools or equipment such as pneumatic drills, jackhammers, chipping hammers, riveting tools, impact wrenches, pavement-breakers, gasoline-powered chain saws, electric tools and grinding wheels, especially in pedestal grinders. Any vibrating tool that causes you a feel of tingling or numbness in your fingers after 5 minutes of continuous use, could lead to Raynaud's phenomenon. Raynaud's phenomenon is also seen in typists and professional pianists from repeated finger stress.

How common is Raynaud's phenomenon?

Raynaud's phenomenon affects every 4 in 10,000 Canadians. Studies show that Raynaud's phenomenon commonly occurs in workers in certain occupations that involve exposure to vibration. For example, 50 percent of 146 tree fellers examined in British Columbia had Raynaud's phenomenon; it affected 75 percent of workers with over 20 years of experience. Similarly, 30% of 1540 forestry workers in Quebec had Raynaud's phenomenon in chainsaw workers. After 20 years of chainsaw use, over 50% the workers had Raynaud's phenomenon.

Another study showed that 45 percent of 58 rock drillers had attacks of white finger; 25 percent of workers with less than five years of experience, but 80 percent of those with over 16 years experience were affected.

What tests are available for Raynaud's phenomenon?

Several laboratory tests can help determine if a person has Raynaud's phenomenon. Some of these tests measure skin sensitivity or blood flow in the fingers, especially under cooling conditions. As yet, however, none of these tests is universally accepted for detecting Raynaud's phenomenon. These tests together with careful analysis of an individual's work history and detailed medical history including signs and symptoms, are useful in judging if a person has Raynaud's phenomenon. Blood tests are often performed to rule out other possible underlying causes.

What treatment is available for Raynaud's phenomenon?

Workers with mild cases of vibration-induced Raynaud's phenomenon may recover if the hazard that caused it is avoided. For severe cases, prescribed drugs may reduce the attacks of white finger. The aims of treatment are to reduce the number and severity of attacks and to prevent damage to the fingers and toes. The most effective therapy is to avoid further exposure to situations that may trigger an attack. Extra clothing to maintain body temperature including warm socks and gloves are essential to keep feet and hands warm. It is also important to find ways to reduce stress as emotional upsets can trigger an attack.

If detected in the early stages, vibration-induced Raynaud's phenomenon will not worsen as long as there is no further exposure to vibration. Early cases may actually improve, but advanced cases seldom do. Surgery often reverses Raynaud's phenomenon caused by hypothenar hammer syndrome.

How do you live with Raynaud's phenomenon?

Precautions can be taken to reduce the number and intensity of attacks of white finger. These precautions include the following:

  • Protect the body from cold temperatures -- turn down the air conditioner or wear a sweater.
  • Dress appropriately for cold weather by wearing layers, gloves, overcoat, hat and scarf.
  • Avoid exposing your hands to extreme cold -- wear gloves when working in cold water or reaching into a freezer.
  • Protect your hands and feet from injury.
  • Avoid tobacco and caffeine -- nicotine and caffeine can reduce blood circulation.
  • Decrease stress and anxiety.
  • Exercise regularly and drink plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration.
  • During an attack warm your fingers and toes (e.g. run warm water over your fingers, soak your feet in a bowl of warm water) and take time to relax.

How can Raynaud's phenomenon be prevented?

Joint occupational health and safety committees should be aware of workplace hazards that cause Raynaud's phenomenon, and the precautions to prevent vibration and cold exposure.

General Precautions

  • Protect the hands from damage and extreme temperatures.
  • Keep warm at work -- wear gloves and warm clothing when working in the cold.
  • Massage and exercise your fingers during your breaks.
  • If tingling, numbness or signs of white finger develop, promptly consult a physician.

Precautions with Vibrating Tools

Although significant advances have been made in reducing tool vibration, preventative measures to reduce this hazard are still necessary. Anti-vibration tools, anti-vibration gloves, and anti-vibration shields may also help reduce exposure to vibration.

In general, grinding, machining, and vibrating processes should be as fully automated as possible. Workers should use vibrating tools only when necessary.

There are several ways to reduce the amount of vibration that passes from the tool to the hands.

  • Use only well-maintained and properly operating tools.
  • Hold vibrating tools as lightly as possible, consistent with safe work practices. Let the tool do the work.
  • Rest vibrating tools on a support or work piece as much as possible.
  • Store tools so that they do not have cold handles when next used.
  • Use proper job design with scheduled breaks to reduce exposure to vibration.

It is important for workers to recognize if early symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon have occurred, and then get appropriate advice to reduce further exposure to vibration.

Are there any standards or laws regarding vibration exposure at work?

British Columbia and New Brunswick are the only provinces in Canada that have specific standards for vibration exposure within their occupational health and safety regulations. Canadian (federal) legislation covers some vibration exposure situations.

Various agencies have proposed guidelines including the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) which has published recommendations for prevention of hand-arm (segmental) vibration syndrome.

Document last updated on October 21, 2008


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