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COLD HANDS AND FEET: WINTER TOES

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Winters can be harsh, particularly for individuals grappling with cold hands and feet, especially those diagnosed with Raynaud's disease. This condition often leads to painful and numbing fingers and toes, triggered by exposure to cold or stress. While larger arteries ensure swift blood circulation throughout the body, the smaller blood vessels that supply blood to the skin remain constricted during Raynaud's episodes, resulting in limited warm blood flow, also known as vasospasm.


Given the body's evolutionary adaptation to endure prolonged cold periods through thermoregulation, it prioritizes the preservation of core body temperature. In this process, veins in the extremities constrict first, followed by limbs, ensuring that the vital organs, specifically the core body, remain protected at a temperature around 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Despite the body's resilience, hands and feet are deemed expendable in survival situations, making them susceptible to the adverse effects of icy conditions.


Hands and feet serve as essential sensors, conveying crucial information about the environment through delicate sensory nerves. Cold exposure can intensify pain signals, especially during the initial stages, as the body signals potential danger. Simultaneously, the veins in the hands, directly connected to the core body, play a vital role in regulating or lowering core body temperature when in contact with cold water, ensuring a swift and balanced response.


Engaging in cold exposure practices leads to the creation of additional skin-deep blood vessels, forming a more effective thermal jacket for the skin. Training the hands and feet for cold exposure enhances the ability of blood vessels to open up quickly, facilitating the release of warm blood and subsequently warming up the extremities.


During cold water immersion, the blood vessels in the hands initially constrict. However, at around 10 degrees Celsius, a fascinating phenomenon occurs—the blood vessels reopen, warming up the hands. The duration for this response varies based on experience:

  • Approximately 2 minutes for experienced cold dippers.

  • 4-5 minutes for those moderately trained in cold exposure.

  • 7-8 minutes for total beginners.

Participants in a Poland Expedition undergo a rigorous cold experience, with hands and feet being the first to feel the impact, requiring substantial training during the initial days.

An intriguing fact highlights Wim Hof's ability to send warm blood to his hands, even when submerged in an ice bucket for two hours in Times Square, New York, with the blood temperature below 10 degrees.


For those seeking to warm their hands, gradual heating is recommended to avoid confusion among heat and pain sensors. Gentle movements, wiggling, shaking, and allowing the blood vessels to gradually open up ensure a more comfortable warming process for cold hands.

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