Poor circulation in the legs itself is not a disease, but rather a result of one or more abnormal conditions. If you notice changes in your legs or feet, it is important to see a doctor for an exam and referral to the proper specialist if necessary. Management and treatment are based on the diagnosis and symptoms.
Changes in one or both legs require a doctor’s attention.
Poor leg circulation is the result of another condition or disease.
A specialist can offer treatments based on the cause and severity of disease symptoms.
Lifestyle habits can help prevent or improve symptoms.
There is a good chance at some point you have had minor swelling in your feet and ankles after a long day of sitting or standing, especially in the heat. In most cases, this is a normal reaction to your lower legs being in a dependent position for extended periods of time, resulting in fluid retention. You go home and put your feet up and it is better in the morning.
That is not always the case though. Potentially serious conditions can be an underlying cause of poor leg circulation. Recognizing the signs of impaired blood flow in your legs can be helpful to get necessary treatment before it becomes serious.
Causes of poor leg circulation
Any time you notice a change in your body, it is important to find out why. There are a variety of reasons that could lead to impaired blood flow. Some conditions are minor and do not require treatment, while others could require emergency medical management.
Potential causes include:
- Atherosclerosis. Plaque buildup from cholesterol and stiffening of the arteries.
- Heart Failure (HF), or Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). The heart cannot adequately pump oxygenated blood out to the body and back again, causing fluid to back up in tissues.
- Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). Blood clots in the legs that could break off and travel in the body.
- Varicose Veins. Damaged valves in the leg veins don’t assist as well in getting blood flow back to the heart and cause vein pressure buildup and bulging.
- Damaged arteries. Due to injury or infection.
Signs and symptoms of poor leg circulation
Each condition usually has its own identifying group of symptoms, which helps your doctor make a proper diagnosis. Some may only have minor changes, while others may not until the condition is more advanced.
Signs and symptoms:
- Cold pale feet, shiny hairless legs, dry brittle skin, or thick toenails
- Weakness or numbness in the lower extremities (legs)
- Pins and needles sensation
- Muscle cramping with walking that improves with rest
- Edema (swelling due to retained fluid) redness, and warmth
- Slow or non-healing sores
- Varicose veins
Your doctor can help you find out if you have poor perfusion (or circulation) in your legs after obtaining more details about your medical history, symptoms, visual examination, and diagnostic testing. Treatment is based on the cause and severity of symptoms.
Who is at risk?
Some risk factors can’t be controlled, such as age and genetics. However, many risk factors can be reduced or eliminated with lifestyle changes and medications.
- Women who experience postmenopausal symptoms
- Those over 50 years old
- Existing heart disease
- People with diabetes
- Those who smoke or use tobacco products
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Sedentary lifestyle
What are treatment options?
Lifestyle changes are important. Smoking cessation, exercise, and managing weight are basic first steps. Medications can be prescribed by your doctor to help treat the cause and reduce symptoms.
If a buildup of plaque causing narrowing or blockage in the arteries of your legs is suspected, a variety of non-invasive and invasive tests can be performed for diagnosis.
A vascular specialist may suggest an angioplasty procedure that includes inserting and expanding a balloon into the affected artery. The plaque is pressed against the wall of the artery, creating more room for blood to pass through. A stent may also be placed to keep the artery open (similar to heart stents). In severe cases, the surgeon may suggest surgery bypassing the blockage altogether with another artery from somewhere else in the body.
If decreased circulation is due to the heart not pumping strongly, a heart doctor will provide the best course of treatment to help the heart work more efficiently and reduce fluids pooling in the lower legs.
Blood clots are dangerous and require urgent medical attention.
Varicose Veins are not always preventable but can be managed.
Is there anything I can do at home?
In any of these cases, it is important to see your healthcare provider regularly and check with them before starting any new interventions. They will provide you with instructions on your diet, exercise, and treatments. Consider these suggestions to help maximize blood flow to your legs:
- Changing sitting positions frequently
- Get up and walk every hour
- Stop smoking
- Keep blood pressure under control
- Manage diabetes
- Maintain healthy eating habits and weight
- Yoga and stretching
- Exercise as tolerated
- If you have PAD/PVD, warm water soaks with your feet below your heart
- Elevate your legs for swelling
- Do NOT massage your legs unless a blood clot has been ruled out
If you have poor circulation in your legs, chances are your body will tell you. Find out the cause, be proactive in a healthy lifestyle, and follow your doctor’s recommendations.