Saturday, December 08, 2007


Late last winter, I experienced the recurrence of a condition I had suffered about 4 months prior to that. My toes would get exceptionally itchy and swell up a little. If I scratched them, it'd get worse. The itching was unbearable and I'm far from the model of restraint when it comes to scratching. In fact, I'm well-known (to my husband, at least) for scratching mosquito bites until they bleed. Fortunately, when mosquitoes are in the house, they seem to favor his gourmet blood to mine so I get few bites.

Since I don't like or trust doctors and this condition wasn't life-threatening (and didn't seem to indicate any larger ailments), I put up with it. I found that it got worse after a hot shower and just learned to avoid letting hot water directly hit my toes while I was showering. I did research "itchy swollen toes" on the Internet and the likeliest candidate, athlete's foot, was one I was sure I didn't suffer. I searched forums where other people had precisely the same problem and sought the advice of on-line podiatrists and no clear answer presented itself.

After about 6 weeks, the first incidence faded. I noticed that it reappeared in conjunction with cold weather and my use of a particular blanket. I figured that I might have grown allergic to the blanket and stopped using it. Unfortunately, the second incidence seemed unrelated to the blanket. The only common factor seemed to be cold weather so I wondered if there might be some sort of underlying relationship to arthritis. My husband suggested perhaps my feet were just too cold, but I was reluctant to cover them because they seemed to get itchier as they got warmer.

During the second incidence, I started to suspect a connection between my problem and wearing damp socks or having wet, cold feet. Our kitchen water heater has powerful water pressure and water often spills over the side of the sink while washing dishes. Our kitchen towel is also about three and a half feet from the sink so washing ones hands results in some dripping of water between the sink and the towel as one makes the trip from the sink to the towel. Since I wash the dishes, I often tread in this water. If I was wearing socks, they'd get wet. At the very least, my bare cold feet would get wet. Because of my concerns that there was a water connection, we ordered some fleece-lined slippers from Amazon Japan. This seems to have done the trick. I haven't had a recurrence of my problem this winter despite the cold weather and using the blanket I feared I was allergic to.

Chilblains is a necromancer spell in Guild Wars. The description above is from the Guildwiki entry.

Fast forward to my sister, my friend Shawn, and I playing Guild Wars this past week. We were being attacked by an enemy who was casting a spell on us which had been cast many times before and which I'd been misreading for a long time as "chiblains" (because the text was small and I missed the first "l"). My sister is a reference librarian and seems to know a lot of obscure terminology because she is well-read and is a (somewhat lapsed) member of the SCA. In fact, she knows a baffling number of uncommon terms so I asked her what it meant and she said it was a term for an ailment related to cold which was used in the Middle Ages. With my curiosity satisfied, I didn't give it a second thought.

Yesterday morning, I had a second thought and decided to look it up in the dictionary to get more information. You can see where this is going, but at the time that I looked up the word, I had no idea that it had a connection to me in any way. I just wanted a few more details about the meaning. Of course, the mystery ailment I had was chilblains. There's an excellent page explaining it here, but I'll say for the sake of those not wishing to go there that it is the development of a previously unexperienced sensitivity to cold in the extremities, especially the hands, feet, nose, and earlobes. It is exacerbated by sudden changes in temperature such as going from having very cold feet to jumping in a hot shower (which is why a shower set it off in the worst way for me). Moisture also plays a part in it. Ironically, not covering my feet because that made them itchier made it worse in the long run as it increased the number and severity of extreme temperature changes. It's not a rare problem (10% of people will experience it in some form or another in their lifetime) and it usually happens to otherwise healthy people.

The funny aspect of all of this to me at this point is that my "diagnosis" came because of an on-line game. A lot of people think most of what shows up in games is rather fanciful, made up stuff, but the truth is that many fantasy games use real, but obscure, terminology. Granted, visiting a doctor may have yielded a proper diagnosis, but my experience is that doctors diagnose using the equivalent of a diagnostic dart board when there is no clear cause (or they encounter something they're not familiar with). They have a whole slew of options and toss a dart at possibilities until they are eliminated before eventually hitting the bull's eye. Before they hit it straight on, they usually test you for everything from brain cancer to head lice and scare the hell out of you (and empty your wallet) in the process. Reading up on other people's experiences with chilblains, I noticed that they sometimes had to visit 3 or 4 doctors before they came across one who recognized the problem. Mind you, if I had a persistent or serious problem, I'd grit my teeth and go to a doctor. This just wasn't one of those cases.


mjgolli said...

How bizarre! I know a few people that have had this issue in their hands and feet, and no one ever knew what it would be called, or if it was a big problem. Though in my "expert" opinion, it is probably cancer of the hair, and you need to start emptying your wallet... :)

- Mike

Jon said...

Wow, this was really insightful. Thanks! Now, if I ever have to go through something similar like this, I'll know what it is.

By the way, I could've possibly missed it, but what were you treatments? Were there any? Or did you just have to order those fleece slippers and try them out, waiting for the itch to go away?

Shari said...

mjgolli: It's not a serious problem, but it is very, very irritating. The itching is on par with things like chicken pox. Since scratching makes it worse, it can be maddening. I think you can experience to greater or lesser degrees. At its worst, people can have blisters which burst. It can also be very painful.

You're so lucky that you have good health insurance and can keep your wallet full. ;-)

Jon: There is no treatment aside from keeping your feet (or hands or whatever) warm and dry though some people believe medication or vitamins which open up blood vessels in the extremities might ease it. Topical creams can mitigate some of the skin damage caused by the swelling (or scratching). It goes away by itself when the weather changes. The fleece slippers solved my problem because they kept my feet warm and dry, but, if you get it on your earlobes or hands, it's a bit more complicated.

I think part of what started it for me was that I was reluctant to use my heater unless I was freezing (to save energy) which meant I was exposing myself to greater extremes in temperature.

Thanks to both of you for commenting!

Kanagawa G said...

That reminds me of the serious burning/itching I had on my toes a few years back. It turns out that my feet were sticking out from my futon at night and were frostbitten.
The only time I get frostbite is INSIDE in Japan.
Stupid drafty country houses...

Shari said...

KanagawaG: I'm not sure why but the idea of being frost-bitten while sleeping inside under a cover seems funny (though I'm sure it wasn't for you!). I grew up in Pennsylvania and never once came close to getting frostbite despite many long, very bitter winters. I guess your blankets may have been too short!

When my husband sleeps, somehow his toes often stick out from under the blanket, but I think Tokyo doesn't get cold enough for the sort of problem you had.

Thanks for commenting!

Lisa said...

I have had this condition for 10 years but never knew what it was. We just had a bout of extremely cold weather and my 2nd and 3rd toes on my left foot became swollen. They get very itchy when I get under the electric blanket. I also have an aversion to doctors and it's never been bad enough for me to go to a doctor. I can usually put up with it for the small amount of time that I have to endure it. Thanks for your post!

Shari said...

I'm glad it helped, Lisa! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

Anonymous said...

I'm just pleased I have company in my misery...I'm not throbbing, swelling, and itching alone...