Blood circulation is a vital and ongoing process to maintain life. It is made possible by the heart which never stops beating throughout life, and the blood vessels which are the conduits through which the blood flows. However, the circulation can be impeded and even interrupted through various means. Poor circulation can affect any area of the body but it tends to be most prominent in the extremities, namely the arms and legs. This can lead to various problems.
Blood Circulation Problems
Oxygen and nutrients are carried throughout the body by the circulating blood. This ensures that all cells are adequately supplied to continue functioning which is required for life to be sustained. Similarly the blood carries away wastes and carbon dioxide so that it can be neutralized and expelled from the body through several ways. Without the circulation functioning at its peak, various tissues and organs can fail and this can even lead to death.
Types of Poor Circulation
There are two main problems that arise with blood circulation. First is a weakening of the heart (heart failure) which may arise with various disease such as a heart attack, diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease and a host of other less common causes. Second, the problem may lie with the blood vessels, either the arteries or the veins. Both have to be healthy to allow blood to flow to an area (through an artery) and return to the heart (through a vein).
Blood through the arteries carry oxygen-rich and nutrient rich blood. It is referred to as arterial blood. Blood in the veins are laden with wastes and carbon dioxide. It is referred to as venous blood. The circulation is continuous and therefore a problem in the artery can also affect the flow of blood in the vein, and vice versa. Poor circulation may refer to both problems with the flow of arterial and/or venous blood.
Poor circulation to the heart and brain can eventually lead to heart attacks and strokes, respectively. These are serious and potentially life threatening conditions. It is among the leading causes of death in developed nations. Poor circulation to the arms and legs (peripheral circulation) is usually less serious. However, some conditions can cause life threatening complications like when a blood clot in the deep vein of the leg causes pulmonary embolism.
Some of the more common peripheral circulation problems include:
- Peripheral arterial disease is narrowing of an artery to the arm or more commonly an artery to the leg due to atherosclerosis (build up of fatty plaques). The narrowed artery may become obstructed with a blood clot.
- Varicose veins is where the superficial veins of the legs become enlarged and compromised in a way that impairs blood flow from the leg to the heart. It may also contribute to DVT.
- Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is the formation of a blood clot in the deep veins of the legs. Apart from impeding blood flow back to the heart, the clot can break off and then obstruct blood vessels of the lungs (pulmonary embolism).
How To Spot Poor Circulation
Poor circulation is most prominent in the legs as the lower leg and feet are farthest away from the heart than any other part of the body. Therefore the signs and symptoms of poor circulation in the legs are discussed further. Blood circulation is not only responsible for nourishing the cells and removing wastes but it is also responsible for the color and temperature of the legs and feet. Even the size of the feet and legs may be influenced by blood circulation since accumulated fluid can cause it to swell.
Leg Pain and Cramps
Aches and pains in the legs are a common symptom in all three common circulatory problems of the leg. This ranges from an ache, burning an heavy sensation in varicose veins to a soreness, cramping and sometimes severe pain in deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and peripheral arterial disease. In deep vein thrombosis (DVT), the pain is mainly felt in the calf and usually on one side only.
With peripheral arterial disease, the pain mainly occurs during periods of activity like walking, running or climbing stairs. This is known as claudication. As the condition worsens, pain may even occur at rest and specifically when the legs are elevated. However, at the other extreme there may also be numbness of the legs in peripheral arterial disease especially as the blood supply to the legs become severely compromised.
Swelling of the Legs
Leg swelling is mainly seen in venous insufficiency. This means that venous blood cannot drain out of the legs properly as may occur in varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis (DVT). As a result, fluid and blood accumulates in the legs which causes it to swell.
However, leg swelling is not only due to problems with the veins in the leg. It also occurs with various other conditions like heart failure and kidney disease. Therefore leg swelling on its own is not a reliable sign of poor circulation in the legs.
Read more on swollen legs.
Change in Leg Color
A change in leg color may be another sign of circulatory problems in the legs. However, it should be considered along with other signs and symptoms. Paleness of the leg is usually a sign of peripheral artery disease where there is insufficient arterial blood circulating throughout the leg. If severe, the toes and feet may even become slightly blue in color and this is a serious sign.
Redness of the leg, particularly of the calf, is typically a sign of deep vein thrombosis. Red, purple or even dark blue veins that are visible under the skin are usually seen in varicose veins. Venous insufficiency can also cause darkening of the legs beyond the affected area. The legs may become darker in color over time as blood pools under the skin. These color changes may also be accompanied by open sores (ulcers) in both arterial and venous problems.
Read more on pale legs.
Change in Leg Temperature
The temperature of the legs is largely influence by the degree of blood flow through it as well as environmental factors. In peripheral arterial disease, the legs are usually colder than expected due to the restricted flow of arterial blood. It is usually one-sided and the feet and lower leg in particular tends to be colder. As the condition worsens and arterial blood is further restricted, the legs may become even colder.
Read more on cold legs.
In deep vein thrombosis, the skin over the area of the clot may be warmer that surrounding areas. This is largely due to inflammation. Varicose veins may not cause significant change in the temperature of the legs. However, if the blood remains pooled in the legs for long periods then it may hamper arterial blood flow and cause the foot in particular to be slightly colder than the other foot or lower leg.