Poor circulation: why your aches and pains may signal a more serious problem

Imagine a system able to pump around 7000 litres of liquid per day. Impressive? Well now imagine that system inside your body. Every day your heart sends this enormous amount of blood through your circulatory system: the veins and blood vessels which carry vital nutrients and oxygen throughout your body.

When this system isn’t functioning as it should, it can have a major impact on your health. And with 7.6 million people in the UK living with a heart or circulatory disease, problems with circulation are more prevalent than you might imagine.

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What happens when circulation is impaired?

When your circulation isn’t working as it should, affected muscles or organs can be starved of vital nutrients, which stops them functioning properly. As you have around 60,000 miles of blood vessels in your circulatory system, symptoms may occur in different parts of the body. The most common symptoms usually occur in the extremities such as the legs and feet, as these are the furthest reaches of your circulatory system.

While some symptoms may be mild, it’s important to take them seriously as circulation problems may be a sign of a number of conditions that may require treatment from a doctor or specialist.

What are the symptoms of poor circulation?

Poor circulation may cause a range of different symptoms, including:

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Muscle cramps

Frequent cramp in your lower legs when exercising (including walking), muscle aches or spasms may all be signs of a circulation problem (claudication). Often, these cramps will occur in the same area each time, and may ease once you stop exercising. 

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Numbness or swelling

Any numbness, pins-and-needles or swelling, particularly in the hands or feet, could be a sign that you need to get checked out. This loss of sensation could be caused by lack of blood flow to the affected area.

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Feeling the cold

Come winter, we all need to wrap up. But if you seem to feel the cold more than others, particularly in your hands and feet, this could be a sign that your circulation isn’t all it could be. This is because when you have circulation issues, the body prioritises getting blood to your vital organs – as a result there’s less blood flowing to your hands and feet. As well as providing essential nutrients, blood flow to these areas helps regulate the temperature. If blood flow is impaired, these areas are more likely to feel cold.

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Problems with healing

If you’re catching frequent colds, or find that cuts and grazes are taking forever to heal, this could be a sign that your immune system isn’t up to scratch. Antibodies in your blood may not work as well as usual when blood flow is compromised, so it’s worth getting this checked out.

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Hair, nails and skin

The condition of your skin, hair and nails reveals a lot about how healthy you are. If your nails are brittle, your skin appears discoloured, or your hair seems thinner than usual or begins to fall out, this is may be a sign that the blood flow to these areas is restricted.

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Varicose veins

These enlarged veins usually located on the back of the legs may be a sign of poor circulation. As well as being unsightly in appearance, they can cause aching, cramping and a feeling of heaviness, and skin discolouration around the site of the vein.

What conditions are linked to poor circulation?

Poor circulation isn’t a condition on its own, but a symptom of another underlying problem within the body. There are lots of different causes of poor circulation; these include:

PAD
Peripheral artery disease (PAD)

is a condition that can cause blood vessels and arteries to narrow, often a result of the build-up of plaque in the arteries. This makes it harder for the blood to circulate as it should in affected areas. Many people with PAD have no symptoms. However, some develop a painful ache in their legs when they walk, which usually disappears after a few minutes' rest.

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Diabetes

both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can lead to bad circulation. This is because high glucose in the blood can lead to fatty deposits which clog the veins and arteries.

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Obesity

if you are your heart has to work harder to circulate blood around your body. Obesity can also lead to the build up of fatty deposits in your veins and arteries. In severe cases, this may cause a blockage in the artery, leading to a heart-attack.

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Reynaud’s disease

this is a condition in which your blood vessels begin to spasm, sometimes as a result of stress or a drop in temperature. This restricts blood flow to parts of the body – often the fingers or toes. Areas affected may turn white or blue. It can be a symptom of an autoimmune disorder, so such symptoms need to be investigated properly. 

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Blood clot

blood clots can occur anywhere in the body, and can be life threatening. Look out for pain or heat in your leg or arm, sudden breathlessness or chest pain. Blood clots have a number of causes, including injury or prolonged bedrest. If you have a family history of blood clots, you may be at higher risk.

Always check in with your doctor to fully understand the reasons behind any leg pain you experience. 

Risk Factors

As well as causing uncomfortable symptoms, poor circulation can have a serious impact on your overall health. You may notice that injuries – particularly on the extremities – take longer to heal. Your immune system may not be able to function as well as it should, making you less able to recover quickly from illness. If your blood flow is impaired, this can mean less oxygen reaches your vital organs which may lead to heart-failure, stroke or the formation of blood clots.

Ways to help

If you are suffering from any of the symptoms of poor circulation, it’s important to seek medical advice from your GP. They will be able to diagnose any underlying cause and advise on the best form of treatment.

If you are experiencing leg pain or cramp as a result of poor circulation, your doctor may advise you to make lifestyle changes or take steps to relieve the symptoms. This advice may include losing weight, taking low impact exercise, spending time with your legs elevated or may wearing compression garments to help improve blood flow.

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