Know the Signs and Dangers of Frostbite

We all know it’s important to wear adequate clothing and avoid spending too much time outdoors on particularly cold Michigan days. But fewer people understand just how damaging frostbite of the hands can be. 

Frostbite in the hands can be mild to severe and requires treatment, sometimes including hospitalization. When the injury is significant enough, amputation may be required even after the best treatments. Problems can persist for months or even a lifetime. These may involve chronic pain and/or numbness, finger sweating, and skin or nail changes. The area may also be more sensitive to cold in the future and develop arthritis from the loss of good cartilage cells in the joints.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the warning signs and treatment of this condition. 

Watch For and Treat Frostnip First
Frostnip is the condition that occurs before frostbite and affects the skin layers of the hands. The skin may become red at first, and then pale, waxy, and numb. Warming up the tissues can prevent frostbite and the loss of tissue. If frostnip is not treated and cold exposure continues, permanent damage and even finger loss can result. 

What is Frostbite?
Frostbite happens when the hands are exposed to freezing conditions for too long. It’s caused by the constriction of blood vessels in the limbs as the body tries to keep its core warm.

As the tissue of the hand freezes, it can lead to the creation of damaging ice crystals in the body. Damaging ice crystals form between cells first, and then inside cells, causing further damage. The longer and more severe the cold exposure, the deeper the tissue — and even bone — that can be damaged. The longer tissue is frozen, the higher the chance of severe damage including thickening or clotting of the blood. Dying cells can release toxins into the body and eventually stop functioning. Damage to the blood vessel lining can result from long cold exposure and rewarming that happens too quickly. 

In many frostbite cases, it’s not easy to get the individual to the hospital quickly enough. The best course of action is to take the initial treatment step yourself before medical personnel can arrive or you can get to a hospital. 

If you’re with someone experiencing frostbite, follow these Dos and Don’ts before arriving at the hospital:

  • DO limit exposure to further cold and protect the frozen body part from more damage by wrapping it in a warm/room temperature dry covering. 
  • DO provide ibuprofen or aspirin before transport to a medical facility, if needed.
  • DO NOT put high heat on the damaged body part if you will be able to get to a medical facility within 2 hours. Immediate high heat can further damage the numb fingers. 
  • DO NOT use heaters, fire, or car exhaust to warm the hands. 
  • DO NOT rub the affected body parts with snow or ice. This treatment was briefly considered beneficial, but studies now show it can cause additional damage. 
  • DO NOT allow the affected body part to thaw and refreeze before or during transport to medical care because the results are usually much worse.

Once under the supervision of a medical professional, the best treatment for frostbitten fingers/hands is to rewarm in a warm (98-102º F) water bath. This is done until the affected part has become red and soft (about 15-30+ minutes). During the rewarming process, there is still a risk of additional cellular injury, making it crucial to seek medical care.

Professional Care for Your Hands
Whatever your hand condition—from recovering from frostbite to carpal tunnel syndrome to arthritis—the professionals at the MSA Hand Center provide therapy and surgical care that get you back to feeling your best. Our specialists are skilled at the full range of procedures that treat mobility issues and repair injuries. Contact us today for a consultation.

American Society for Surgery of the Hand