Are your fingers and feet always cold? Do you have swelling in your lower legs? These may be signs of poor circulation.
Here’s what you need to know about what poor circulation is — and what you can do about it.
What Is Poor Circulation?
Poor circulation is not a disease. Rather, it is a general term that means your circulatory system isn’t working as well as it should. Poor circulation results from other problems, such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Your circulatory system consists of your heart, veins, arteries, and other blood vessels. They bring oxygen and nutrients to the cells in every part of the body. They also carry away waste.
When the blood can’t move efficiently through the blood vessels — because of narrowing or blockage — you have poor circulation.
Who is at risk for poor circulation?
If you have heart disease, diabetes, or other health problems that affect your blood vessels, you’re at risk for poor circulation. Older people and smokers tend to have more circulation problems. Being overweight also raises your risk of developing poor circulation.
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What Causes Poor Circulation?
Any blockage of a blood vessel can cause circulation problems. These blockages may result from a combination of factors.
Some root causes of poor circulation include:
- Atherosclerosis — when fatty plaque builds up in your arteries, restricting blood flow. Sometimes people call this condition hardening of the arteries.
- Autoimmune disorders — certain autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, can lead to weak, inflamed blood vessels.
- Birth control pills — can lead to an increased risk of blood clots, strokes, and heart attack, especially if you smoke.
- Congestive heart failure — this condition happens when your heart isn’t pumping the blood efficiently through the body. Blood and fluid then back up around the heart.
- Deep vein thrombosis — when blood clots form in your legs, blocking blood flow.
- Diabetes — too much sugar in your blood can damage blood vessels, causing them to no longer function well.
- High blood pressure — when your blood pressure is too high, blood vessels become less elastic. They get weaker and blood can’t flow through them as easily.
- High cholesterol — leads to plaque building up in blood vessels. They become more narrow and slow down circulation.
- Obesity — if you’re overweight, you’re at higher risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure. Both conditions can lead to blocked blood vessels.
- Peripheral arterial disease — when arteries in the legs get narrow because of cholesterol buildup.
- Raynaud’s phenomenon — a condition where blood vessels in your fingers and toes constrict. Stress and cold temperatures can bring on symptoms if you have this condition.
- Sedentary lifestyle — not getting enough exercise contributes to poor blood flow.
- Smoking — causes blood vessels to become inflamed and increases your risk of heart disease.
Poor Circulation Symptoms
Many people first notice poor circulation symptoms in their hands and feet. That’s because your extremities are the parts of the body furthest away from the heart. The blood must travel a long distance to get to fingers and toes.
Some common signs of poor circulation include:
- Feeling cold. A healthy flow of blood keeps your body warm. If your blood isn’t circulating well, your hands, feet, fingers, and toes may feel chilly.
- Muscle cramps. A leg cramp every now and then is normal. But if you get them often it may be a sign of poor circulation. If there is a consistent pattern, like getting cramps after walking a certain distance, you may have blockage in an artery.
- Pain in one particular area. If you have a blocked artery, you may have pain around that area. Blocked blood vessels happen more often in the arms and legs than other parts of the body.
- Shortness of breath. If your circulation is bad, you may feel short of breath even when you’re not exerting yourself. If shortness of breath comes on suddenly, it may be serious and you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
- Swelling, especially in the arms and legs. Blood clots can cause the arms and legs to develop edema (swelling). Many people with circulation problems have swelling in the feet, ankles, and lower legs.
- Tingling or numbness where circulation is poor. If you frequently feel “pins and needles,” it may be a sign of poor circulation. It’s also a common symptom of nerve problems with diabetes.
- Varicose veins. When blood can’t make its way through the veins, it can back up and cause bulges under the skin. These twisted, enlarged veins are near the surface of the skin.
- Your skin changing color. Poor blood flow can cause your skin to change color in places. It may look pale, blue, or purple.
How to Improve Circulation
There are many ways to go about improving circulation. You should talk to your doctor about your condition. Poor circulation can be a sign of a serious problem.
Your doctor will want to treat the underlying cause of your poor circulation. They can diagnose the problem and come up with a treatment plan. It might include:
- Lifestyle changes — your doctor may recommend exercise for 30 minutes each day. They will also suggest eating a healthier diet if you need to lose weight. If you smoke, you should try to stop as soon as possible.
- Managing your stress — reducing stress can help lower your blood pressure. A healthier blood pressure can help with circulation problems.
- Medications — your doctor may recommend medicines that help prevent blood clots or ones that relax blood vessels to lower blood pressure. They may also prescribe medicine to lower your cholesterol.
- Surgery — if you have blocked or narrow blood vessels, your doctor may recommend angioplasty. They may also suggest removing varicose veins.
Other ways to boost your circulation include:
- Elevating your feet — putting your legs up can help with swelling and pain. Gravity helps blood and fluid drain from clogged blood vessels.
- Moving — sitting still too long (like on an airplane) can lead to blood clots. Simply getting up and moving around every hour or two can boost your circulation.
- Wearing compression stockings — these snug-fitting socks can help the blood vessels in your feet and lower legs work better.
U.S. News and World Report, The Most Common Signs of Poor Circulation and How to Improve Them, Link
National Library of Medicine, Vascular Diseases, Link
Diabetes.co.uk, Poor Blood Circulation, Link
American Diabetes Association, Diabetes Foot Complications, Link
CDC, Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD), Link
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