Poor circulation – symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

Vein Problems. Veins have the task of transporting blood from all over the body back up to the lungs for a breath of fresh air. These blue-looking vessels are thinner and less muscular than the arteries. They’re also under far less pressure from the heartbeat. So, to keep the blood moving back toward the heart, they must rely on help from a series of small interior valves and the massaging action of surrounding muscles. If these helpers fail to do their job, blood can bog down in the outer reaches of the system; veins can swell and become irritated; and clots can form and travel to other parts of the body.

Varicose veins are the most visible vein problem, but not as serious as venous thrombosis – the formation of a blood clot in a vein deep within the tissues.


The danger lies in the chance that such a clot could travel to the lungs, where it can cause a potentially fatal condition called a pulmonary embolism. (A blood clot in a vein near the surface of the body, as in varicose veins, rarely breaks free and causes trouble elsewhere.)

Thrombosis usually strikes without warning, but there are some measures you can take to reduce your risk. Whenever possible, avoid prolonged periods of inactivity that allow blood to pool in your lower legs. On a long car or plane trip, take a walk-and-stretch break as often as possible. If you’re laid up with the flu for a week or two, have someone help you move around a few times a day. These tactics are especially important if you have ever had any clotting problems in the past. Signs and Symptoms

Effective treatments are available for many common circulatory problems. Clogged arteries can be opened and unsightly varicose veins can be removed. But prevention is by far the best strategy. Even later in life, relatively simple measures like a brisk daily walk and giving up cigarettes can often keep circulation problems at bay, or at least keep them from getting worse.

If you experience venous thrombosis, you’ll be prescribed bed rest for a while, with legs elevated. After the swelling goes down, a below-the-knee elastic stocking may be recommended, and you’ll be told to avoid long periods on your feet. If you must take anticoagulant drugs, regular monitoring may be required to steer clear of bleeding problems.

Since the same process of plaque buildup underlies both heart disease and leg artery disease, it isn’t surprising that preventive measures are very similar. Of course, everyone knows that not smoking, a low-fat diet, regular exercise, and control of high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol can help stave off a heart attack. But they can also prevent a "leg attack" every time you take a brisk stroll to the mailbox.

Quit smoking. Giving up cigarettes is absolutely essential to controlling leg artery disease. The various toxins in cigarette smoke don’t just damage the lungs; they harm the heart and the arteries throughout the body as well. Given the strong association between smoking and leg artery problems, kicking the habit is essential to kicking up your heels as you grow older.

Keep moving! If leg artery disease is causing you discomfort, you may not feel like walking; but hang in there anyway. Take a brisk walk for a half-hour to an hour – preferably each day, but at least three times a week. Experts aren’t sure just why walking helps improve the condition, but they know it does. It may encourage the development of tiny "detours" (called collateral circulation) through unblocked vessels, or it may just train leg muscles to use oxygen more efficiently.

In any case, get moving: Walk until the discomfort sets in, then slow down or stop. Once pain subsides, resume your pace. Don’t try to walk "through" severe pain. In winter, indoor exercise may be a better bet, since claudication pain can be triggered or worsened by cold. Mall-walking, exercise bicycles, or treadmills are possibilities. Start swimming in an indoor pool, or just walk in the water, backward as well as forward. It’s likely you’ll start to feel a difference before long – and such a program of regular exercise has many other benefits, too. It burns calories, keeps you limber, and lifts your spirits.

Keep tabs on blood cholesterol. If you are diagnosed with leg artery disease, it’s a good bet that your blood cholesterol levels are too high. If you don’t know your cholesterol numbers yet, ask your doctor to measure your levels of "good" ( HDL) and "bad" ( LDL) cholesterol. If you find you do have a significant blood cholesterol problem, it’s never too late to start treatment, which will reduce your risk of heart disease, as well.