Poor Circulation

Overview

What is poor circulation?

Poor circulation happens when something interferes with your complex, far-reaching circulatory system that delivers blood, oxygen and nutrients to your entire body. When your heart, veins, arteries, capillaries and other blood vessels are healthy, they can give your cells everything they need in an efficient way. It’s a continuous cycle of bringing oxygen and other necessities to your cells and taking away waste from your cells.

Problems happen when something goes wrong with some part of the delivery system or the valves that control which direction your blood goes. Like a delivery driver who runs into problems and delays along his route, blood can hit detours and roadblocks along the way.

Obstacles in your blood vessels make it hard for blood to get through, especially when trying to reach the parts of your body that are the longest distance away from your heart ― your fingers and toes. The biggest problem with poor circulation is that your cells aren’t getting as much oxygen as they need. When cells don’t have the oxygen they need, they can’t function well.

Who does poor circulation affect?

People who are older than age 40, are overweight, have diabetes and don’t get much exercise are more likely to have poor circulation.

How does poor circulation affect my body?

You may feel pain, numbness, tingling or cold in the parts of your body that have bad circulation. Often, poor circulation symptoms affect your legs, hands, fingers, feet and toes.

Symptoms and Causes

What are the symptoms?

Poor circulation can cause a number of symptoms, including:

  • Muscles that hurt or feel weak when you walk.
  • A “pins and needles” sensation on your skin.
  • Pale or blue skin color.
  • Cold fingers or toes.
  • Numbness.
  • Chest pain.
  • Swelling.
  • Veins that bulge.

What causes poor circulation?

Conditions that reduce your blood flow can give you bad circulation, such as:

  • Smoking: Chemicals damage your blood vessels, putting you at a higher risk of atherosclerosis.
  • High blood pressure: When your blood is pushing against your blood vessel walls with a lot of force, it can weaken them. This makes it harder for blood to move through them.
  • Atherosclerosis: Plaque (which contains fat and cholesterol) piles up inside your arteries, limiting blood flow.
  • Diabetes: Having too much glucose in your blood can harm your blood vessels.
  • Deep vein thrombosis: Your body makes a blood clot in your leg, which reduces blood flow.
  • Pulmonary embolism: A blood clot in your leg breaks off and goes to your lung, which keeps blood from getting to your lung.
  • Peripheral artery disease: Plaque inside your peripheral arteries cuts down on the amount of blood getting to your legs and feet.
  • Varicose veins: When your blood pressure goes up, it can damage the walls and valves of your veins. Blood inside varicose veins can flow the wrong way.
  • Raynaud’s disease: Blood vessels in your toes and fingers get narrower when you’re stressed or cold.
  • Obesity: Having obesity can put you at risk for medical problems that slow down your blood flow, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is poor circulation diagnosed?

Your provider will want:

  • Physical exam.
  • Medical history.
  • Tests.

What tests will be done to diagnose poor circulation?

Your provider may order tests that include:

Management and Treatment

How is poor circulation treated?

Your provider may order medicine for you or do surgery to:

  • Open blocked arteries (angioplasty) or go around them (bypass).
  • Remove a blood clot (catheter-assisted thrombus removal).
  • Put in a vena cava filter that keeps blood clots from getting to your lungs.
  • Close or remove varicose veins.

What medications are used?

Medicines your provider may order include:

  • Statins that keep plaque from building up in your arteries.
  • Antiplatelet drugs like aspirin that keep your body from making large blood clots.
  • Blood thinners like warfarin (Coumadin® or Jantoven®) or other oral agents to prevent blood clots.
  • Thrombolytics to get rid of large, dangerous blood clots.
  • Medicines that bring your blood pressure down.

Complications/side effects of the treatment

Any surgery has a risk of bleeding. Medicines that keep your body from creating large blood clots also have a risk of bleeding. Your provider will work with you to get your dosage right so you don’t bleed excessively when you get hurt.

How do I take care of myself?

You can improve your poor circulation symptoms in these ways:

  • Exercise.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Lose weight.
  • Control your stress.
  • Wear compression gloves or stockings.

Prevention

How can I reduce my risk?

You can reduce your risk of poor circulation in these ways:

Outlook / Prognosis

What can I expect if I have poor circulation?

If you don’t do something about your bad circulation, it won’t get better on its own. In fact, it can get worse. But you can manage and improve your poor circulation with lifestyle changes, medication and surgery, if necessary.

Living With

How do I take care of myself?

You can take care of your poor circulation in several ways:

  • Keep going to your medical appointments.
  • Take medicines your provider prescribes.
  • Live a heart-healthy lifestyle.
  • Know the warning signs of serious problems, such as a pulmonary embolism.

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Contact your provider when you have new symptoms, deep vein thrombosis or when your medicines aren’t helping your symptoms.

When should I go to the ER?

You should get help immediately when:

  • You don’t have feeling in your foot.
  • You get a “pins and needles” feeling or pain in your leg when you’re not exerting yourself.
  • You have chest pain.
  • You think you’re having a pulmonary embolism.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

  • What kind of exercise would you recommend for me?
  • Do I need treatment or can I just make lifestyle changes?
  • Should I take a baby aspirin daily?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A number of common medical problems can cause poor circulation, but there are things you can do to improve it. You can eat healthier and increase your exercise level, for example. If those actions aren’t enough to improve your circulation, your provider can order medicine for you or do surgery if other treatments don’t work.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/27/2021.

References

  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Peripheral Artery Disease. (https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/peripheral-artery-disease) Multiple pages reviewed. Accessed 9/28/2021.
  • Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Poor Circulation in the Extremities. (https://www.christopherreeve.org/blog/life-after-paralysis/poor-circulation-in-the-extremities) Accessed 9/28/2021.

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