Raynaud’s is a serious disorder that prevents adequate blood flow from reaching the fingers, toes, ears, nose, and lips. About 5% of Americans have Raynaud’s, and its symptoms can be diagnosed as a disease, syndrome, or phenomenon, depending on its presentation and root cause. People with this disorder are prone to frequent vasospasms, or blood vessel constrictions, that make them unusually sensitive to cold. Their fingers may become stiff and turn white or blue if they go out in cold weather without gloves, or even if they hold an iced drink for too long. In severe cases, sufferers may choose to avoid cold climates altogether.
As with so many poorly understood chronic health problems, standard Western treatments for Raynaud’s offer little in the way of lasting relief. Doctors often tell these patients to wear layers and invest in extra thick socks and gloves. Those who don’t find warm clothing particularly helpful will usually be given alpha blockers, calcium channel blockers, or antidepressants to improve circulation. The side effects of these drugs range from headaches and weight gain to anxiety and tissue swelling. When symptoms don’t improve with regular medication, doctors may suggest nerve surgery or injections.
Unsurprisingly, more and more Raynaud’s patients are interested in learning about how Chinese medicine can help control their symptoms. I see many of them in my practice.
Chinese medical approaches to Raynaud’s are centered around improving the integrity of qi and blood in the superficial channels, and thereby increasing peripheral circulation. During a thorough evaluation, practitioners will note the nuances of the patient’s presentation, and decide from there which treatments are most appropriate. For these patients, I often use herbs such as astragulus (huang qi), aconite (fu zi), ginger (gan jiang), ligusticum (chuan xiong) and cinnamon (gui zhi) to ease chill, move blood, and reduce pain in the extremities. These herbs are chosen because they are powerfully warming, which is crucial to dispel the cold that characterizes this disorder.
Raynaud’s patients may also find relief with acupuncture. One promising study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that acupuncture can reduce the frequency of vasospasms by 63%. And, more generally, research has shown that acupuncture can improve circulation and ease pain.
Many practitioners suggest substantial lifestyle changes for this population in addition to traditional Chinese treatments, and I am no exception. One of the first suggestions I make to my Raynaud’s patients is to find effective ways to cope with stress. Stress can exacerbate their symptoms nearly as much as cold temperatures, but almost everyone can find an activity that settles the mind and calms the nervous system. I’m partial to meditation (see this page for a list of free audio meditations, or this subtitled video for the deaf and hard of hearing). Others prefer various forms of exercise, massage, or warm baths. All of these activities are beneficial for Raynaud’s, even apart from their stress reducing properties. Physical activity is especially effective at warming the body and improving sluggish circulation. For these reasons, it is one of the most important lifestyle modifications I recommend to Raynaud’s patients.
Diet also plays a role in Raynaud’s management. Omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in nuts, seeds, sea vegetables, and oily fish (like salmon and mackerel), are vital for optimal blood circulation. These fats may also help combat the low mood and depression Raynaud’s patients experience when they are unable to participate in activities they enjoy or effectively manage their pain. Caffeine intake should be reduced. Whether it is in the form of coffee, soda, energy drinks, or chocolate, caffeine can constrict the blood vessels and worsen pain in the extremities.
Raynaud’s patients shouldn’t lose hope, despite what other healthcare providers may have said about their prognosis. Coupled with a well-considered complementary treatment plan, these lifestyle changes can make an incredible difference in their quality of life. Time and again, I have seen Chinese medical treatments and stress-reduction plans ease pain, warm the body, and give Raynaud’s sufferers an entirely new outlook on their condition.
Post updated February 28, 2017