The Running Doctor: Don't ignore those cold fingers & toes

Suffering from cold fingers or toes? There is a medical explanation called Raynaud's phenomenon, a condition in which blood flow to the fingers and toes slows down. It is caused by cold weather or a sudden drop in temperature, resulting in a whiteness and numbness of the fingers and toes.

When the body gets cold and the core body temperature drops, the sympathetic nerve sends a signal to constrict the smaller vessels in the fingers and toes, restricting blood to the arms and legs and in turn increasing it to the internal organs to protect them from cold. In severe cases, there may be a break-down in the tissue in the ends of the fingers and toes resulting in sores which may even lead to ulcerations.

There are as many as 10 percent of women and three percent of men who suffer from this condition.

However, it most commonly affects women between the ages of 15 through 40. Men usually do not experience the condition until their thirties. Researchers have theorized that the disease may be hormone related; research has also found that emotional upset can bring on the symptoms.

Protection in cold weather is most essential for Raynaud's sufferers, but is important for everyone as unprotected skin can freeze quickly when the temperature or wind chill is below zero.

Frostbite is another cold-related condition. There is a real danger of frostbite to the feet when sports shoes get wet; there is less blood flow as the blood vessels close. As a result, the skin turns white. When the skin temperature reaches 59 degrees, the body attempts to rewarm the skin by opening the blood vessels and increasing circulation to the surface.

The skin will begin to feel warm, tingling, and turn red. However, with further drop in temperature, the blood vessels begin to close again. If the skin is allowed to freeze, it will be white in appearance and feel hard to the touch. If frostbite is suspected, get indoors immediately and seek medical attention if necessary.

The best treatment of cold related conditions is prevention. Dress in layers of loose clothing. Wear mittens which bring fingers closer together for added warmth; use polypropylene liners. Wear a hat to prevent heat from escaping the body.

Dr. Robert F. Weiss is a former member of the Medical Advisory Committee of the Olympic Marathon Trials. Dr. Weiss is a veteran of 35 marathons. For more information go to