If you or a loved one are dealing with poor circulation, one of the first symptoms you may notice is coldness in the legs and feet. As unpleasant as cold extremities are, poor circulation may be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition.
Other symptoms to look out for include:
- Swollen veins and arteries (varicose or "spider" veins)
- Heaviness in legs and feet
- Skin discoloration
- Swollen legs and feet
- Split, weeping skin
- Pelvic pain or discomfort
- Restless legs and feet
- Numbness and tingling
- Aches or pains
- Lack of hair growth on legs and feet
- Toenails grow very slowly or stop growing
While certain factors like age and weather conditions can impact blood circulation, we recommend you speak to a vascular physician if you notice any of these symptoms, as untreated circulatory issues can potentially lead to life-threatening ailments.
Common Causes of Poor Blood Circulation in the Legs and Feet
Despite being thought of as a problem faced primarily by senior citizens, poor blood circulation isn't limited to the elderly. Some of the most common causes of poor blood circulation of the legs include:
- Age: Seniors tend to suffer from poor blood circulation in the legs due to several factors like becoming more sedentary, thickening of the aorta, and decreased sensitivity in baroreceptors.
- Atherosclerosis: A condition caused by hardened arteries, atherosclerosis is one of the most common causes of poor blood circulation. Left untreated, atherosclerosis can cause Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD).
- Deep Vein Thrombosis: Also called a DVT, a deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot that forms in a vein deep within the body, most commonly the lower leg or thigh. If the clot breaks loose, it can cause a life-threatening blockage in the lung called a pulmonary embolism or PE.
- Diabetes: Over time, diabetes can cause numerous health complications, including poor blood circulation, kidney disease, diabetic neuropathy, gum disease, heart disease, and stroke.
- Inactive Lifestyle: An inactive lifestyle causes you to lose muscle strength, weakens your bones, lowers your immune system, and decreases blood circulation because healthy blood flow depends on movement.
- Obesity: In addition to causing bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and cholesterol, obesity can potentially lead to decreased blood circulation and even heart attacks.
- Peripheral Artery Disease: Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) is caused by atherosclerosis. As the arteries harden, a substance called plaque builds up within the arterial walls, narrowing them. Left untreated, this can reduce or even stop blood flow to a limb, leading to tissue death and possibly amputation.
- Smoking: Smoking is the cause of one in five deaths in the United States. Not only does it cause cancer, but it damages the blood vessels, which leads to poor blood circulation.
- Venous Insufficiency: Venous insufficiency, a condition in which blood pools in the veins instead of returning to the heart, can be genetic, but it can also be caused by age, pregnancy, obesity, or a sedentary lifestyle.
Not only is poor blood circulation in the legs and feet uncomfortable, but it can cause life-threatening problems if it goes unchecked. Always seek medical assistance if you're suffering from any of the symptoms, especially if you've been diagnosed with one of the known causes of poor blood circulation.
Now that we've reviewed poor circulation causes, we can delve into poor circulation treatments.
Treating Poor Circulation in the Legs and Feet
Your first step should be a check-up with your doctor. A vascular physician will diagnose any conditions, prescribe any medications you might need, and formulate an actionable treatment plan for managing your poor circulation.
You may require medication or procedures to treat your conditions, but your doctor will also recommend lifestyle changes. Here are a few simple things you can do -- with your doctor's approval -- to increase your blood circulation.
- Get regular exercise: Exercise is essential for heart and circulatory health. Low-impact exercise such as walking, stationary bicycling, yoga, and swimming can reduce the discomfort caused by poor circulation and other ailments.
- Put your feet up: Elevation helps with edema, swelling caused by a build-up of excess fluid, which usually occurs in the feet, ankles, and legs. While not everyone with poor circulation experiences edema, elevating your legs if you're going to be sitting for an extended period is still beneficial.
- Wear compression garments: If your doctor approves, you can give compression garments a try. Compression increases blood flow, which helps to counteract poor circulation in the legs and feet.
- Stop smoking: Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your health. Speak to your doctor about a plan to help you kick the habit for good. Quitting decreases your risk of cancer, improves your blood circulation, and lowers your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Carrying excess weight puts additional strain on your heart, joints, and vascular system. Maintaining a healthy weight reduces your risk of diabetes, heart disease, poor blood circulation, and arthritis.
Following a heart-healthy diet like the DASH diet -- short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension -- can lower your blood pressure, improve your blood circulation, and reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Eliminating sugar-laden beverages and fattening heavily processed foods will significantly improve your health. But eating healthfully doesn't have to be bland and boring. Some delicious ingredients you should eat more often:
- Cinnamon: Cinnamon has been proven to reduce cholesterol levels and improve blood glucose.
- Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate contains heart-healthy flavonoids, which cause the blood vessels to dilate.
- Nitrate-rich foods: Beets and dark, leafy greens have high levels of nitrate, a commonly prescribed blood pressure medicine.
- Dark berries: Like dark chocolate, dark berries such as black currants, blueberries, blackberries, and even strawberries contain potent antioxidants and flavonoids.
- Healthy fats: Unhealthy, saturated fats like butter and palm oil should be limited, but healthy fats in foods like olive oil and avocado are good for your heart.
A nutrient-rich diet of fruits, healthy fats, whole grains, and vegetables and decreasing your intake of processed foods filled with saturated fats will make it easier to maintain a healthy weight. This reduces strain on your joints and feet and improves your blood circulation and heart function.
What doctors to visit for poor blood circulation in your legs and feet?
Some patients link their leg pain or feet pain to nerve damage, muscle pain, or bone pain. Many Center for Vascular Medicine patients are referred from other specialists or the primary care doctor. The OBGYN may refer a patient to an orthopedic surgeon or neurologist to treat chronic pelvic pain because of misdiagnosis that the pain is nerve related. Pelvic pain is caused by poor blood circulation in the pelvic region.
The same can be applied to leg pain or feet discomfort. When you are showing signs and symptoms of poor blood circulation in lower extremities, you should see a vascular doctor first before ruling out other options. The vascular surgeon will conduct a physical, get a detailed history of the patient, analyze the symptoms, and conduct an ultrasound with a vascular technician before making a diagnosis.
Avoiding Complications of Poor Blood Circulation
If you have poor blood circulation in your legs and feet, even minor injuries can take much longer to heal. This means that a small bruise can eventually become an ulcer, and ulcers have the potential to become infected. Talk to your doctor about managing any underlying conditions causing poor circulation such as PAD or diabetes.
Getting regular, low-impact exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and managing your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol can help you avoid further complications caused by poor blood circulation.
Vascular Treatment for Poor Circulation
Your first step in treating poor blood circulation is a visit to your vascular specialist. They may recommend an exercise and diet program and medication, but some patients see the most benefit from a vascular treatment such as angioplasty or bypass surgery.
During an angioplasty procedure, your doctor uses an x-ray to guide a catheter (a thin, hollow tube with a small balloon on the end) through the femoral artery to the blockage in your leg. Your doctor then inflates the balloon to widen your artery, allowing for increased blood flow. In some cases, a thin, mesh tube called a stent is left inside the artery to prevent the blockage from reforming.
Bypass surgery involves attaching veins or synthetic grafts above and below the blockage to reroute blood flow, which increases circulation to the legs and feet.
There is some risk involved in any invasive medical procedure. Speak to your vascular specialist for more details regarding any risks that may pertain to your case specifically.