Numb and cold fingers can be related to injury or nerve irritation and can often lead to a diagnosis of Reynaud’s phenomenon, a vascular disease. Reynaud’s can be an indication of a more serious underlying health condition. When tingling, numb and cold fingers are chronic, a physician can provide a diagnosis and treatment options.
Fingers blanch white and often lose feeling altogether. Toes and, less commonly, the tip of the nose and ears can also be affected. As circulation returns, finger tips can turn red and sometimes purple, experience pain, throbbing and an uncomfortable tingling sensation. You may also notice some swelling as blood returns to your fingers. The condition is usually brought on by exposure to cold weather or from holding something cold such as a glass of ice water. Emotional and physical stress can also trigger the symptoms.
Reynaud’s syndrome is classified as primary, when it’s not associated with an underlying condition, and secondary, when the condition is connected to an underlying condition. Secondary Reynaud’s is not as common as primary and is usually more serious. Underlying conditions include a number of auto-immune connective tissue diseases, such as lupus, scleroderma and rheumatoid arthritis. It can also relate to repetitive trauma or prior injury, thyroid gland disorders, pulmonary hypertension, carpal tunnel syndrome or chemical exposure. Certain medications, such as beta blockers, migraine medications and estrogen can cause Reynaud’s.
A physician looks at a number of indicators to diagnose chronically numb and cold fingers. Diagnostic tests may be administered, including blood tests; tests to evaluate thyroid function and vitamin B12 levels; electromyography, which measures muscle response to nerve stimulation; and ultrasound of neck blood vessels to assess any risk for stroke. Your physician may ask questions related to other symptoms, such as chronic fatigue or shortness of breath, which can be associated with connective tissue disease.
Serious cases of Reynaud’s can lead to gangrene, so it is important to avoid prolonged symptom attacks. One suggestion for bringing circulation back to your fingers or toes is to immerse them in warm water until sensation returns. When that’s not possible, you can put your fingers on a warm part of the body, such as the neck or under the arms, so they can absorb heat. Vigorously rubbing your fingers together or massaging them can help. Microwaveable heat packs can be heated and placed on the fingers or toes.
There are a number of ways to prevent numb and cold fingers, depending on whether or not there is an underlying health condition. These include: exercise regularly, don’t smoke, minimize your caffeine intake, manage stress, wear gloves when the weather is cold and avoid locations that have extremely cold climate conditions. Prescribed medications can relax the walls of blood vessels, which helps minimize symptoms. In the most severe cases, chemical injections and surgery are available.