• Health & Fitness

Swimming with Raynaud's Syndrome

What is Raynaud Syndrome and what causes it? Plus, we get a first hand insight from an ocean swimmer.

If you’ve spent some time open water swimming during the winter months with swim buddies, the chances are you’ve come across the term ‘Raynaud’s’, in fact, you might have even experienced Raynaud’s yourself.

The primary signs of Raynaud’s is discolouration in an individual’s fingers or toes, along with a loss of sensation, and as much as ten percent of the world’s population have the phenomenon.

In this article, we explain what Raynaud Syndrome is, what causes it, and how to manage it, plus we get a first hand insight from ocean swimmer Juliann Desjardins.

What is Raynaud’s Syndrome?

Raynaud’s Syndrome is a condition that causes blood vessels to temporarily overreact to low temperatures, stress, or emotional upset.

When it occurs, the smaller arteries that supply blood to the skin constrict excessively, limiting the blood supply and causing certain areas of the body to feel numb and cool.

Raynaud’s most frequently affects fingers and toes but at times it can affect one’s ears, the tip of the nose and nipples.

Types of Raynaud’s

Raynaud’s was first diagnosed in 1862 by French doctor Maurice Raynaud and since then has become increasingly prevalent in open water swimmers, especially during the cooler months.

Raynaud’s has been classified into primary and secondary categories, depending on whether or not other factors are at play.

Primary Raynaud’s happens without any other illnesses behind it and while the symptoms can be severe in some, they are usually mild compared to secondary Raynaud’s. It is most likely that open water swimmers who have Raynaud’s fit into this category.

Secondary Raynaud’s is caused by another illness such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome or undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment. While it is less common than primary Raynaud’s, the symptoms are more severe and can lead to serious health conditions. Swimmers who experience Raynaud’s should see their doctor for a check up if they have any concerns.

What causes (Primary) Raynaud’s?

When primary Raynaud’s is caused by the cold, it tries to conserve heat by slowing down blood flow to the areas farthest from your heart (your hands and feet).

To do this your body narrows the network of small arteries that carry blood to these extremities, moving them away from your skin. But, if you have Raynaud’s, your body’s response is to feel under attack, causing your arteries to shrink more than usual and at a faster rate. This is what causes your fingers and toes to feel numb and change colour, lasting anywhere from five minutes to a few hours.

Once the body starts to warm up, the arteries relax allowing for greater blood flow to your extremities again, leaving your fingers and toes to turn red and with a tingly sensation, before returning to normal.

Signs and symptoms

  • Cold fingers and toes
  • A tingly or prickly sensation when your extremities start to warm up
  • White or blue skin when you’re cold or stressed. This usually turns red as you start to warm up
  • Reduced sensation of touch
  • Pins and needles

How to manage Raynaud’s

It’s accepted that Raynaud’s syndrome isn’t curable, however, you can take steps to help manage and reduce the number of attacks that occur.

  • Layer up: Wear gloves and socks even when you’re in the water. Neoprene gloves and booties can help reduce the severity of a Raynaud’s attack.
  • Manage stress: Stress can increase the number of attacks you have. You’re already one step closer to managing stress by ocean swimming.
  • Soaking your hands or running warm water over them can help decrease the time of an attack.
  • Avoid smoking as it closes up your blood vessels and lowers your skin temperature, increasing your chances of having an attack.
  • Hand warmers and hot water bottles post-swim.
  • A thermos full of a hot drink post-swim.
  • Stretching or a dynamic warm-up pre and post swim.

An open water swimmer’s experience with Raynaud’s

Juliann Desjardins is an avid ocean swimmer and surf lifesaving athlete who has dealt with Raynaud’s for over twenty years.

“Growing up in Canada, I first noticed my Raynaud’s was triggered when ice skating, skiing, or walking to school. Episodes were very rare to begin with, but became increasingly common. Nearly 20 years later, it can be triggered by walking through the refrigerated section of the grocery store!

“When I moved to Australia in 2015, I thought I would be ‘cured’. It turns out ocean swimming in Sydney was not the tropical oasis I had imagined. My hands came out looking like those of a dead person almost every time I left the water.

“I’m rarely alarmed or phased when it happens (even if others are genuinely concerned they might fall off at any moment). Even when it first happened, it wasn’t the coldest I had ever been, it wasn’t frostbite, and it was only part of one finger that had lost its colouration. It then returned to normal probably 15 minutes later.

All the fingers on Juliann’s hand suffer from an attack of Raynaud’s

“At its worst, my hands go completely white and numb, as well as the pads on the bottom of my feet. They are uncomfortable and I find it difficult to complete fine motor tasks such as zippers and buttons. Interestingly, I also noticed that even when I was asymptomatic, a pulse oximeter would measure my blood oxygen saturation at only 85% (A normal reading would be 98-100%, and under 95% would be considered low, usually requiring supplemental oxygen.)

The tip of a single digit turns white

“The only time I would describe the condition as ‘painful’ is sometimes in the re-heating or thawing process. If I attempt to heat them too quickly, under warm water for example or in front of a heater blasting on max, they can start to throb, turn blue, then bright red, before feeling ‘normal’ again.

“There was a time in my adult life when I did think I was ‘cured’. After I had my first daughter, I realised I couldn’t think of a time since before I was pregnant when I had any episodes – even after some VERY cold swims. After speaking with a few others, I heard anecdotally that others’ symptoms changed during and after pregnancy. One said she developed the condition in her nipples, while others said their Raynaud’s disappeared completely. It made sense to me that the increased blood volume that occurs during pregnancy would reduce the likelihood of occurrences and perhaps have long lasting effects.

It turned out that it was my move to the Gold Coast and brief hiatus from ocean swimming that had delayed the return of my symptoms but I can report they are back in full force – especially during winter!

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 1 September 2022
  • (Updated on 3 August 2023)

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