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Poor Circulation in Feet

Reviewed by
Dr. Matthew Garoufalis

If you have had foot pain or other problems involving your feet, one of the reasons may be poor circulation.

Why Is Poor Circulation in Feet a Concern?

Poor circulation can lead to numerous health conditions or worsen those you already have. The first indication of poor circulation is usually a problem with the hands, feet, or legs.

There are many causes of poor circulation, some of which are related to unhealthy lifestyle choices. Poor foot circulation is sometimes caused by obesity, lack of exercise, or poor food choices. These habits can cause the arteries that carry oxygenated blood and nutrients around the body to become diseased. A diseased artery narrows, preventing the easy flow of blood to organs and muscles. The reduced blood flow results in less oxygen being delivered to all parts of the body, which can hinder the body’s ability to function normally.

A number of diseases, including diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and high cholesterol, can also interfere with blood flow and cause poor circulation. People with diabetes are especially at risk for foot problems:

“Nerve damage, circulation problems, and infections can cause serious foot problems for people with diabetes. Sometimes nerve damage can deform or misshape your feet, causing pressure points that can turn into blisters, sores, or ulcers. Poor circulation can make these injuries slow to heal. Sometimes this can lead to amputation of a toe, foot, or leg.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012)

Reduced blood flow to the limbs is called peripheral artery disease (or peripheral arterial disease). This usually affects the legs. Peripheral artery disease is generally caused by atherosclerosis, which is a build-up of fatty deposits (plaque) in the artery walls.

Poor circulation that is not addressed can develop into a serious disorder, and can lead to varicose veins, kidney damage, and strokes.

Symptoms of Poor Circulation in Feet

People with poor circulation or peripheral artery disease may not have any symptoms, or they may have mild pain or “burning” in the feet. The pain may occur with walking or exercise and decrease with rest. Other symptoms associated with peripheral artery disease include:

  • Painful cramping of the muscles in the hip, thigh, or calf after activity (claudication)
  • Leg numbness or weakness
  • Coldness in the lower leg or foot, compared with other parts of the body
  • A sore, poorly healing wound or ulcer on the toe, foot, or leg
  • Change in skin color or shiny skin on the legs
  • Hair loss or slower hair growth on the feet and legs
  • Slower toenail growth
  • No pulse or a weak pulse in the legs or feet
  • Erectile dysfunction in men

Evaluation of Poor Circulation in Feet

By simply looking at your feet, your doctor may see physical signs of poor circulation, the most obvious sign being evidence of poor wound healing. Using a stethoscope, your doctor may be able to detect a weak or absent pulse in your feet or whooshing sounds (bruits) over arteries where blood flow is restricted or there is decreased blood pressure.

A common test used to diagnose peripheral artery disease is the ankle-brachial index, which compares the blood pressure in your ankle with the blood pressure in your arm. You may be asked to walk on a treadmill if your doctor wants to measure blood pressure during exercise.

Your doctor may perform a Doppler ultrasound examination to evaluate blood flow and identify blocked or narrowed arteries. Angiography allows your doctor to view blood flow through your arteries as it happens, and is often used in conjunction with treatment.

If your doctor suspects diabetes, you will likely have blood testing to measure your cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

How to Improve Poor Circulation in Feet

Poor circulation in the feet can be treated in a number of ways. Management of the underlying cause of the poor circulation, such as atherosclerosis, is a key part of treatment. It is also helpful to eliminate risk factors for poor circulation, such as lack of exercise, smoking, and obesity. In people with diabetes, this also means good control of blood glucose (sugar) levels.

Medications often used in the treatment of peripheral artery disease include:

  • Symptom-relief medications to increase blood flow to the limbs and treat symptoms of claudication
  • Antiplatelet or anticoagulant medications to prevent blood clotting
  • Cholesterol-lowering medications (statins) to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke
  • High blood pressure medications (antihypertensives)
  • Medications to control blood sugar in those with diabetes

For serious issues with blood flow, your doctor may consider angioplasty, which can be used to enlarge the narrowed peripheral arteries, or arterial bypass, in which a vein from another part of the body is used to bypass the narrow or blocked artery. These procedures are usually performed by a vascular surgeon.

Foot care is especially important for those with poor circulation to the foot (peripheral vascular disease). Some ways of better caring for your feet include:

  • Wearing proper shoes to avoid placing undue pressure on certain areas of the foot and to prevent injury
  • Practicing proper foot hygiene and taking gentle care of corns and calluses
  • Inspecting your feet daily
  • Seeking help from your doctor for any wounds, sores, or infections on the foot that won’t heal

How Can I Prevent Poor Circulation in Feet?

There is a lot you can do to prevent poor circulation in your feet. In addition to following your doctor’s advice, you can make lifestyle changes that will greatly reduce your risk factors for poor circulation.

Smoking cessation not only improves blood circulation but also prevents a host of other diseases, including diabetes. According to the CDC, smoking is also linked to Buerger’s disease, which affects blood vessels in the arms and legs and often causes pain, coldness, and sores in the hands and feet: “Almost everyone with Buerger’s disease smokes cigarettes. However, Buerger’s disease can occur in people who use other forms of tobacco, like chewing tobacco. People who smoke 1½ packs a day or more are most likely to develop Buerger’s disease.” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013)

Regular exercise — at least 30 minutes a day — will help tremendously. Eating a healthy diet with fruits and vegetables is also important for good health, and helps the body function normally. Other natural remedies to improve circulation include herbal supplements, hydrotherapy, and massage. However, you should check with your doctor before trying any of these types of treatments.

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Medical References:

    J. S. Mandak, MD, “5 questions about poor blood circulation,” (The Patriot News, 2012), "http://www.pennlive.com/bodyandmind/index.ssf/2012/06/5_questions_about_poor_blood_c.html"http://www.pennlive.com/bodyandmind/index.ssf/2012/06/5_questions_about_poor_blood_c.html Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Diabetes Public Health Resource, November 7, 2012, "http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/consumer/problems.htm"http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/consumer/problems.htm Mayo Clinic, Peripheral artery disease (PAD), "http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/peripheral-arterial-disease/DS00537"http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/peripheral-arterial-disease/DS00537 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Smoking and Buerger’s disease,” April 12, 2013, "http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/diseases/buergers-disease.html"http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/diseases/buergers-disease.html

This page was last updated on January 18th, 2014



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