The circulatory system is responsible for supplying the entire body with oxygenated blood. It also facilitates the delivery of nutrients, hormones, and even medication to the tissues in need. Poor circulation, however, means decreased blood flow to specific parts of the body, most commonly our extremities, as they are the furthest from the heart.
Poor circulation isn’t a diagnosis in itself, but rather a consequence of other health issues. Treating the underlying cause rather than the symptoms of poor circulation often leads to better health outcomes.
What causes poor circulation?
The circulatory system is similar to that of a big city road system. Just like there are multilane highways, urban boulevards, rural roads, and one-way side streets, there are large veins and arteries, smaller blood vessels, and tiny capillaries. As you can see, the circulatory system is very intricate and complex, and there are many different ways in which it can get compromised.
The following are some such causes:
Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
PAD is estimated to affect nearly one million Americans each year. More than five percent of people age 70 and older are diagnosed with PAD. This is a condition in which the blood vessels and arteries narrow, primarily affecting the legs. It is associated with another condition called atherosclerosis whereby blood vessels stiffen due to cholesterol plaque buildup. Peripheral artery disease is commonly associated with pain in the lower extremities. Over time, a patient develops other symptoms of numbness, tingling, nerve and tissue damage.
If left untreated, the plaques on the arterial lining may accumulate in the carotid arteries in the neck. These arteries deliver blood to the brain. If they are affected, one can suffer a stroke.
The formation of blood clots is a natural phenomenon. In fact, it is vital for human survival, stopping excessive blood loss and facilitating blood vessel repair. However, when blood clots form when there’s no damage to repair, they may lead to the blockage of important blood pathways and, as a result, circulatory problems.
Developing a blood clot can be dangerous. If a blood clot ends up traveling in the blood stream, it has the potential for lodging in the brain and causing a stroke. This can lead to serious health consequences and even death.
These are commonly seen on the legs of affected patients and are due to blood vessel valve failure. They often appear gnarled and engorged, being blue or purple in color. Essentially, these vessels are damaged and can’t push the blood as efficiently as other veins. Varicose veins may lead to blood clot formation in rare instances.
This condition is primarily dictated by genetics and is common among overweight women.
This is a condition of poor blood sugar metabolism and leads to long-term circulation problems. Diabetic patients will often complain of cramping pain in the legs, calves, thighs, and buttocks, especially during times of activity. Over time, a condition called diabetic neuropathy may develop, leading to decreased sensation in the extremities. Diabetics often develop atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and heart disease as well.
This is a condition that causes the small arteries in the hands and toes to narrow, leading to chronic cold hands and feet. This narrowing of the vessels makes it difficult to pass blood through, leading to poor circulation. Individuals with Raynaud’s disease commonly present with symptoms when exposed to cold temperatures or during times of stress. These symptoms may also affect the lips, nose, nipples, and ears. The condition is more commonly seen in women who live in colder climates.
Other causes of poor circulation:
- Eating disorders
- Food allergies
- High blood pressure
- Heart disorders
- Circulatory disorders
- Blood vessel disorders
- Artery and vein disorders
- Intermittent claudication
- Nerve disorders
- Complications from flying
- Poor diet
- High cholesterol
- Thyroid disease
- Weight gain
Symptoms of poor circulation
Numbness in limbs: The loss of sensation in the limb affected. It is similar to when a part of the body “falls asleep” and becomes impervious to pain or touch.
Decreased cognitive ability: The brain is one of the most important organs in the body and responsible for our cognition and actions. If its blood supply is compromised, one can have difficulty thinking clearly. Poor circulation may even lead to memory loss.
Loss of appetite: The gastrointestinal tract requires adequate blood supply much like any other organ in the body. If blood supply becomes impaired, you may not feel the hunger, which often leads to a decreased metabolism.
Digestive problems: The gastrointestinal system is composed of various organs involved in the digestive process and requires a generous amount of blood supply to maintain their function. Poor circulation can lead to malabsorption, with the majority of food simply passing through the digestive tract, leading to nausea, loose bowel movements, or other digestive issues.
Exhaustion: Your blood is filled with oxygen and nutrients required by various tissues in your body. When this process becomes hampered by poor circulation, your muscles and organs do not work at optimum capacity, leading to your feeling tired faster. This in a way is your body’s way to conserve as much energy as it can, because it recognizes that it is not getting as much nutrients as it should.
Weakened immune system: Vitamins and minerals supplied by the circulatory system help support the immune system. This keeps it strong and able to fight off foreign invaders such as viruses or bacteria.
Tightening of the chest: Another very important organ in the body is the heart. It is responsible for pumping blood throughout the entire circulatory system. The heart itself has its own blood supply. If blood flow to the heart is reduced, you may feel tightening or increased pressure in the chest known as angina.
Slackened libido: The reproductive systems of both men and women rely on good blood circulation. In cases of poor blood circulation, women may develop irregular monthly cycles or fertility problems, while men may experience erectile problems.
Cold extremities: Blood has a harder time reaching the furthest parts such as the hands and feet. Because your blood keeps you warm, extremeties are usually the first to become cold.
Skin discoloration: When poorly perfused areas of the body don’t get enough oxygenated blood for prolonged periods of time, the skin over those areas will become discolored, taking on a blue or purplish appearance. This is one of the most obvious signs of poor circulation.
Dark circles under the eyes: While dark circles may be due to a number of difference causes, poor circulation is one of them. The appearance of dark and puffy circles can be due to decreased blood flow. By gently pushing against the skin in this area and seeing if the area becomes lighter and then darker again, the cause is most likely related to circulation.
Brittle hair and nails: The circulatory system is responsible for providing nutrients throughout the body. Poor blood circulation can affect these parts of the body as well. The hair and nails may break easier and not be as strong.
Swelling of the feet and hands: Can be due to a direct result of nutrient imbalances and the body’s inability to keep fluid in the blood vessels.
Leg ulcers: Poor circulation often leads to rash-like ulcers that may develop around the ankles and knees. These areas can become sore and inflamed.
Dry skin: Poor circulation makes it difficult for the body to stay hydrated. Skin can appear dry and itchy.
Related: Poor circulation in hands: Causes and how to improve it
Diagnosis of poor circulation
When a patient presents with the symptoms of poor circulation, knowing precisely where the symptoms are occurring can help your doctor find out the underlying reasons for your particular case of poor circulation. Knowing family history and any other related diseases will help to make a diagnosis. Your doctor will use this information and any existing risk factors to help find the best treatment.
A physical exam will be the first step in diagnosis, but your doctor will use several diagnostic tests to confirm their suspicion. These tests may include:
- Antibody test
- Blood sugar test
- Blood test for signs of clotting
- CT scan
- Blood pressure tests in the legs
Treating Poor Circulation
Management of underlying conditions leading to symptoms of poor circulation is the best form of treatment. This may include properly treating your atherosclerosis or diabetes with the guidance of a trained medical professional. However, there are some things you can do on your own that can help improve poor circulation:
Stay active: Standing up from time to time improves circulation. Much of today’s society is living a sedentary lifestyle where they seldom stand up and move around. Getting in a short walk will contract leg muscles and promote blood circulation. Getting exercise is a great way to promote blood circulation.
Stop smoking: This bad habit is known for increasing your risk of peripheral artery disease along with a whole slew of other potentially fatal health conditions. Quitting smoking will help improve blood flow in a matter of weeks.
Lose weight: Maintaining a healthy body weight helps keep your body healthy and your circulatory system working efficiently.
Exercises to improve poor circulation
The following are some easy to perform at-home exercises you can start doing today. it is important to go at your own pace and to avoid straining yourself to the point of injury. These basic workouts help increase circulation and lubricate the joints, which can be a help you reduce pain down the line.
- Hold onto the back of a chair for balance.
- Lift your calves nice and high by lifting on your tippy toes.
- Squeeze the calves hard to increase blood flow.
- Flex your toes as you lift.
- Develop a rhythm as you move up and down.
- Perform three sets of eight reps
- Hold onto the back of a chair for balance.
- Lift the knees high to encourage circulation through hips and knees.
- Alternate knees from left to right.
- Challenge your balance by holding each leg up and letting go of the chair.
- Perform three sets of eight reps for each leg.
- Lay down flat on a yoga mat or a mat of your choosing.
- Go up into a bridge position. This is done with your buttocks of the ground, feet flat, and knees bent at 90 degrees.
- Thrust your pelvis into the ear and squeeze your buttocks as hard as you can.
- Release and drop down to the mat.
- Perform three sets of six to eight reps.
Poor circulation can be remedied by taking control of your own body. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle that incorporates intelligent diet and exercise choices is a fantastic way to avoid circulatory complications in the future. However, there are times when this is not enough, and the guidance of a trained medical professional is needed. Most cases of poor circulation are quite treatable when caught early.
Related: Poor circulation treatment: How to improve blood circulation