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The real reason you get chilly hands and feet may be different than you think.
Last Updated: 12/04/2018

If you struggle with chronically cold fingers and toes as soon as cold weather arrives, you're not alone. Although many of us blame our chilly hands and feet on "poor circulation" (and we settle for answers like "cold hands, warm heart"), it actually has much more to do with your choice of attire.

How many times during winter months do you hear people cite poor circulation as the main reason for their freezing feet and hands? As it turns out, poor circulation is not the cause. Vascular consultant Professor Whiteley of The Whiteley Clinic says that in almost all cases these people are not suffering from "poor circulation" because the blood in their arteries is flowing very well.

"Many people will mistakenly use the term 'poor circulation' when complaining about having unusually cold hands and toes—particularly in the cold winter months. What is actually happening is the vessels which transport the warm blood to the extremities, such as the toes, ears, nose and fingers, are very sensitive to the cold and go into spasm. Therefore, this is not a problem with circulation; it is actually a problem with the microcirculation (the smallest blood vessels in the body)."

Poor circulation occurs when arteries are blocked or narrowed, restricting blood from flowing through the vessels. This is often caused by lifestyle habits such as smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and old age, advises Professor Whiteley.

So what exactly is reactive microcirculation?

There are several possible causes of reactive microcirculation, says Professor Whiteley.

"Many people who suffer from this problem are very slim and therefore lose heat more quickly during cold weather. Other people may experience problems with cold hands and feet due to a low metabolic rate, particularly if they have a low thyroid function or if they are on drugs that cause poor flow in the small vessels such as beta-blockers.''

How can reactive microcirculation be treated?

Wrapping up warmly is the easiest way to prevent these problems, says Professor Whitely.

"If you wear sensible clothing, you will not lose body heat, and your fingers and toes will stay nice and warm. However, if you are wearing inefficient layers that do not keep the warmth in then you will start to lose heat, and once your temperature starts to drop your body will take action to preserve heat to the core.''

So, if your fingers and toes are feeling cold ask yourself if you wrapped up enough for the weather.

What else could be triggering cold feet and hands?

Another reason for cold feet and hands is that some individuals are more prone to feeling cold than others. Their peripheral arteries go into spasm when they feel cold, which is known as Raynaud's syndrome.

Raynaud's phenomenon is a disorder that affects blood vessels mostly in the fingers and toes. It causes the blood vessels to narrow when you are cold or under stress. The treatment of Raynaud's disease aims to reduce the number of attacks, to make attacks less severe, to prevent tissue damage and to stop the loss of any tissue in the fingers and toes.

There are simple measures to prevent Raynaud's:

  • Keep your hands and feet warm and dry.
  • Warm your hands and feet with warm water.
  • Avoid air conditioning.
  • Wear gloves to touch frozen or cold foods.
  • Wear a hat and multiple layers of loose clothing when it's cold.
  • Use chemical warmers, such as small heating pouches that can be placed in pockets, gloves, boots or shoes.
  • Don't smoke.
  • Exercise regularly.

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