Your circulatory system is your body’s transportation system. A network of blood vessels delivers blood, oxygen, and nutrients to all parts of your body, and carries waste away. It’s crucial to keep things flowing smoothly 24/7 because even a small traffic jam has health consequences.
Poor circulation is often a warning sign of a blockage in a blood vessel, so you shouldn’t ignore the signs. Learn about the symptoms and causes of poor circulation — as well as how to improve it.
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Causes of Poor Circulation
Circulation problems develop when blood can’t get through a vein or artery. Since blood carries oxygen, circulation problems mean your cells can’t get enough oxygen. This can cause some of your cells to die.
Poor circulation usually happens because of underlying health problems, such as:
- High blood pressure. This weakens your blood vessels, making them less elastic. As a result, blood can’t move through as easily.
- Atherosclerosis. With this condition, fatty plaque builds up inside your arteries, restricting blood flow.
- Diabetes. Having too much sugar in your blood damages your blood vessels’ inner lining and restricts blood flow.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT). With DVT, blood clots form in your leg and block blood flow.
- Obesity. People with a BMI greater than 30 are at higher risk of poor circulation. That’s because you’re more likely to develop conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, or blocked arteries when you’re significantly overweight.
- Raynaud’s disease. This condition causes blood vessels in your fingers and toes to narrow when you’re cold or stressed.
Besides these health conditions, certain lifestyle factors are causes of poor circulation. Two important ones are smoking and a sedentary lifestyle.
With smoking, toxic compounds in cigarettes can damage your blood vessels and restrict blood flow. And having a sedentary lifestyle can slow down your blood flow through your body. It also increases your risk of obesity.
Signs of Poor Circulation
You can have circulation problems anywhere in your body, but you’re most likely to notice signs of poor circulation in your hands or feet. “Sings of blockages in leg arteries can be just the tip of the iceberg,” said Farda Qayyum, MD, vascular surgeon, UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute in Central Pa., “People prone to leg artery blockage are also at increased risk of blockages in other areas as well.”
Common symptoms of poor circulation include:
- Cold or numb fingers or toes.
- Skin that’s pale or bluish.
- A feeling of “pins and needles.”
- Pain in your feet or legs when you walk.
- Swelling in your feet or legs.
- Chest pain can also be a warning sign of poor circulation. If you have chest pain, call 911 immediately.
You might have these symptoms in one limb or both, depending on where your circulation problem is. Poor circulation can be a sign of serious vascular problems, like heart disease, that can worsen over time if not treated. If you have any of these signs of poor circulation, even if they’re subtle, make sure you tell your doctor.
Diagnosing Poor Circulation
Your doctor can examine you and look for circulation problems with these tests. The goal of these screenings and tests are to check for life-threatening blockages, further minimizing the risk of stroke or heart attack.
- Blood tests to measure cholesterol levels.
- An ankle-brachial index (ABI) test, to measure blood pressure in your arms and legs.
- An exercise stress test to see how your heart pumps blood during exercise.
- Imaging tests, like a CT scan or Doppler ultrasound, to look at your heart, blood vessels, and blood flow.
- Angiogram, a minimally invasive test that takes X-rays of the inside of your blood vessels using special contrast dye. The dye goes into your body through a catheter threaded into a blood vessel in your groin or arm.
How to Improve Circulation
Treatment for a circulation problem depends on the cause and severity. If plaque prevents blood from getting through your blood vessels, a surgeon can remove it and open blocked arteries. They might do this during an angiogram.
Your doctor might also prescribe medicine to treat your circulation problem. Medication can help:
- Break up any blood clots that can restrict circulation.
- Thin your blood so clots don’t form.
- Reduce your blood pressure or cholesterol so blood vessels stay healthy.
- Relax and open blood vessels in your fingers or toes if circulation problems are from Raynaud’s disease.
With poor circulation, prevention is the best medicine. These lifestyle strategies can keep your blood vessels healthy, thus preventing circulation problems from happening or keeping them from worsening:
- Make sure you manage any underlying health conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure. Follow your doctor’s advice about diet, medication, and lifestyle changes.
- Get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise each day to keep your blood moving. The best options are aerobic activities that get your heart pumping, like walking, swimming, biking, or at-home cardio workouts. If you can’t do these, a physical therapist can show you effective exercises to do while sitting or lying down.
- Eat a healthy diet. This can keep your weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure in check and reduce your risk of developing circulation problems.
- If you smoke cigarettes, quit. Ask for help from a health coach or behavioral health specialist if you need it.
- Wear compression stockings or gloves. These are tight-fitting, elastic garments that help circulation, especially if you sit or stand for long periods.
Signs and symptoms of poor circulation are often your body’s way of warning you about a bigger problem that’s brewing. It’s always wise to listen to your body and take steps to prevent or treat circulation problems.
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.