Your circulatory system is a vast network of arteries, veins, and capillaries that delivers oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body and removes waste on the return journey. If either the structure or function of the components is compromised, it can lead to poor circulation in the extremities, especially the legs.

At Comprehensive Vascular Care, with offices in Novi and Southfield, Michigan, our team of board-certified vascular specialists knows that poor circulation is more than just a passing problem; it can actively affect your leg and overall health. That’s why they want their patients to understand the causes and symptoms of poor circulation, so you’ll know when to seek out medical help.

How do arteries and veins work?

Your heart is a muscular organ whose function is to pump blood out to the rest of your body; your arteries and veins are the conduits through which the blood flows. The arteries deliver oxygenated blood to the body, while veins return deoxygenated blood to the lungs and heart. If a problem arises within the network of tubules, it leads to arterial or venous disease.

How does poor circulation develop?

Poor circulation can start either in the arteries or the veins.

Issues with arteries

A major issue on the arterial end of things is peripheral artery (or arterial) disease (PAD), which most commonly affects the lower extremities. It’s estimated to affect over eight million people aged 40 and older in the United States.

With PAD, the arteries become narrowed, decreasing blood flow to the extremities and starving them of oxygen. It’s most often caused by atherosclerosis, colloquially called “hardening of the arteries.” Here, a sticky plaque of fats, proteins, calcium, and debris builds up on the walls, preventing blood from flowing normally.

While many people with PAD have only mild or even no symptoms, that doesn’t mean your leg health isn’t impacted. One of the key signs of PAD is lower leg pain when you walk (claudication); it can vary anywhere from mildly annoying to so debilitating you can’t move.

Additional leg problems include:

  • Muscle cramping
  • Weakness and/or numbness
  • Lower leg feels cold to touch
  • A reddish skin color (venous stasis dermatitis)
  • A weak pulse or none present in your legs or feet
  • Sores on legs or feet (ulcers) that heal slowly, if at all

Ulcers are especially problematic for diabetics. More than 80% of lower limb amputations in this population start with a foot ulcer.

Issues with veins

Venous insufficiency (VI) is the usual starting point for vein disease. The condition occurs when the veins malfunction and blood flow stalls as a result. About 40% of US adults have some degree of VI.

Veins have the unenviable task of transporting blood against the pull of gravity. To ensure forward motion, they use a series of one-way valves that snap closed once the blood passes by. Valves can become damaged, though, often from high blood pressure. The result is the blood backtracks and pools around the damaged valve.

When superficial veins are involved, the pooling blood leads to ropy, colored bulges on the skin — varicose veins. While generally not a serious problem, they can produce a variety of symptoms, including achiness, itchiness, and a “heavy” sensation. More importantly, they can lead to more serious conditions, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Deep vein thrombosis affects deep tissue veins, often in the legs. “Thrombus” means clot, so DVT results when a blood clot forms in the vein. Blood flow becomes sluggish as it tries to make its way around the clot, and the area swells. It’s possible, too, that some or all of the clot can break off and travel to the lungs. If it becomes lodged in an airway, it causes a life-threatening condition called a pulmonary embolism (PE).

Left untreated, poor circulation in the veins, as with PAD, can lead to swelling (edema), pain, changes in skin color and texture, a weak pulse, and easily infected foot and leg ulcers.

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