What Causes a Purple Finger?

Various medical conditions can cause a person's finger to turn purple. In most instances, restricted blood circulation to the hand and fingers is the root cause of the purple discoloration. Oxygenated blood is bright red and gives your fingers their normal pinkish color. Without oxygen, blood turns dark and results in external color changes. Some of the more common health conditions that cause purple finger are as follows.

When To See a Doctor:

When purple finger occurs it's a sign you're not getting enough oxygenated blood to that or perhaps other areas of the body. If it persists (especially after warming the hands) or is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, check with your doctor.

Beginning of purple finger

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Vasospasm

A vasospasm is the narrowing of the arteries caused by a persistent contraction of the blood vessels, which is known as vasoconstriction. Vasospasm can occur in many parts of the body. When the condition occurs in the arms or legs, symptoms include:

  • Finger or toe turning purple or blue, caused by lack of oxygenated blood.
  • Sharp pain, often described as burning or stinging, in the area affected.

Treatment

Vasospasm treatment for the fingers focuses on preventing causes of vascular constriction. This includes:

  • Avoiding cold exposure
  • Avoiding pressure on the fingers
  • Avoiding tobacco smoking since nicotine leads to intense vasoconstriction of the skin. Smokers are a high percentage of patients with traumatic vasospastic disease.
  • Avoiding emotional stress

Raynaud's Phenomenon

Raynaud's phenomenon (also called secondary Raynaud's, or Raynaud's syndrome) is a disorder that affects your blood vessels and causes them to overreact to cold weather. When someone with Raynaud's phenomenon has an attack, the body doesn't send enough blood to the hands and feet. This decreased blood flow causes a lack of oxygen and results in the fingers turning blue or purple (in severe cases).

Stress or cold weather can trigger an attack. When this happens, the hands and feet can feel very cold or numb. These episodes can last only a few minutes to more than an hour. Symptoms range in severity, but they are most often mild. There are two forms of the condition:

  • Primary Raynaud's phenomenon occurs for an unknown reason. It is the more common form of Raynaud’s phenomenon. Symptoms usually begin between ages 15 and 25 years old.
  • Secondary Raynaud's phenomenon is caused by an underlying health condition. Scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease that affects the skin and organs, is the most common cause. Secondary Raynaud's phenomenon is less common but more serious than the primary form. Symptoms usually begin after age 35 years old.

Raynaud's phenomenon should not be confused with Raynaud's disease, a milder and more common form of the condition.

Treatment

There is no cure for Raynaud's phenomenon, but lifestyle modifications or medications can reduce the severity and number of future attacks, and prevent finger or toe tissue loss. The drugs of choice are vasodilators (drugs that dilate blood vessels) prazosin (a high blood pressure drug) and nifedipine (a calcium channel blocker). Drug treatment reduces the frequency and severity of attacks in about two-thirds of patients who have primary or secondary Raynaud's phenomenon. 

Surgery is sometimes required in severe cases to restore blood flow to the impacted areas.

Actions you can take at home include:

  • Stay warm: Keep your body warm, It's especially important to keep your feet and hands warm and dry. In cold weather, wear socks, hats, and gloves or mittens, and layer with loose clothing. If you will be outside for extended periods of time, keep hand warmers in your pockets. Use insulated drinking glasses to protect your hands when drinking cold beverages. Put on gloves before handling frozen or refrigerated foods.
  • Avoid rapidly changing temperatures and damp climates: An extreme change in temperature and damp, rainy weather can cause an attack.
  • Limit or avoid air conditioning: Air conditioning is also a trigger.
  • Don't smoke: The nicotine in cigarettes lowers skin temperature, which may lead to an attack.
  • Try acupuncture: Acupuncture can help improve blood flow.
  • Be careful with medications: Certain medicines cause the blood vessels to constrict, which can cause an attack. These drugs include beta-blockers, caffeine, narcotics, some migraine headache medications, and some chemotherapy medications. Be sure to speak to your doctor before starting any new medicines. Do not stop any medicines you are taking without permission from your healthcare provider.
  • Control stress: Learning relaxation techniques is important because stress can cause an attack. Your doctor may be able to offer suggestions.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise can improve your overall health. In addition, it can increase your energy level, control weight, and improve sleep quality. Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.

If your doctor decides these measures are not enough, he may suggest taking medication. Blood pressure drugs or medicines that relax blood vessels are most often prescribed to treat Raynaud's phenomenon. It's important to followup with your doctor while on medication in order to assess any problems or side effects that may surface.

Achenbach Syndrome

Achenbach syndrome is another condition that can cause purple fingers. People with this condition experience periodic pain and swelling in one or more of their fingers. A spontaneous hematoma (when blood pools outside of broken blood vessels) follows, and is what causes the finger discoloration. Patients experience warning signs minutes before the color change begins. These symptoms include pain, tingling, and itching. The precise cause of Achenbach syndrome is unknown.

Treatment

The symptoms of Achenbach syndrome are largely self-resolving. Bleeding beneath the skin usually stops on its own or after applying local pressure. The abnormal purple color usually disappears within a few days, without permanent damage.

Chilblains

Chilblains is a rare, painful condition that causes red or purple bumps or patches on the fingers, toes, and less commonly the cheeks, and ears.  These bumps may intensely burn, itch, and become swollen. They sometimes blister as well. Chilblains is a cold weather-induced disorder. It's caused by an abnormal reaction by the blood vessels after exposure to cold and damp conditions. Symptoms usually appear a few hours later. Chilblains mostly occurs in women for unknown reasons.

Treatment

There is no cure for chilblains. Since cold temperatures trigger it, you can treat chilblains conservatively by keeping the hands or other affected areas dry and warm. Additionally, maintaining a sufficient core body temperature and avoiding smoking (which constricts blood vessels) are usually enough to keep the disease controlled. If this isn't enough, doctors can prescribe the drugs nifedipine (calcium channel blockers) or pentoxifylline (a drug that improves blood flow).



Buerger's Disease

Buerger's disease normally affects the small- and medium-sized nerves, arteries, and veins. Burger's disease causes blood vessels to swell and narrow, which constricts blood flow. This puts you at risk for blood clots that affect your hands and feet. One of the symptoms of Buerger's disease is decreased blood flow to fingers and toes in cold weather, which can lead to purple or blue finger.

Other symptoms include:

  • Coldness, numbness, tingling, or burning
  • Pain in the arms, hands, and the legs and feet, even at rest.
  • Painful muscle cramps, swelling (edema), and skin ulcers
  • Gangrene (tissue death) may occur with severe blockages, requiring amputation of the fingers and toes.
  • Vein inflammation and symptoms of Raynaud's phenomenon

Treatment

Doctors aren't sure what causes Buerger's disease, but a common thread among patients is tobacco use, such as smoking. There is no cure for Buerger's disease but in many cases, quitting tobacco use eliminates or reduces symptoms. This is the most effective treatment to stem the effects of the disease. Patients who continue to smoke have a 40 to 50% amputation rate. 

Some other treatments that have had varying success include:

  • Medications that improve blood flow and reduce blood clot risk
  • Pain medicines
  • Arm and leg compression
  • Spinal cord stimulation
  • Surgery to control pain and increase blood flow

A Word From Verywell

These conditions are the most common causes of purple finger. Developing purple finger is rare and most times has no serious or lasting effect. If you need more guidance about how to manage purple finger recurrence, your doctor is the best resource.

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Article Sources
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