Poor Circulation – The Definitive Guide

June 15, 2017 / Research
Poor Circulation – The Definitive Guide

Poor circulation occurs when blood flow is reduced to certain parts of the body. Most commonly, the extremities are affected. When the circulatory system is impaired, this contributes to symptoms of poor circulation. These symptoms occur as a result of the blood vessels being unable to deliver key nutrients and oxygen. This guide will provide a comprehensive look into what causes poor circulation, the symptoms you may experience if your circulation is compromised, and what kinds of treatment are available. Although we will consider the general causes and symptoms of poor circulation, this page will focus primarily on poor circulation in the legs.

Poor Circulation: A Brief Summary

Poor circulation is not classed as a medical condition. It is a byproduct of other illnesses and diseases.

  • Poor circulation is not classed as a medical condition. It is a byproduct of other illnesses and diseases.
  • The most common signs and symptoms of poor circulation include numbness, pins and needles or a tingling sensation, stinging pain and severe, throbbing pain, which can come and go.
  • Poor circulation is treatable. There are various treatments and lifestyle changes, which can be beneficial, especially if the cause of reduced circulation is determined early.

The symptoms and signs of poor circulation in the legs

The range of symptoms an individual patient may experience as a result of bad circulation vary according to the underlying cause. However, there are certain symptoms, which tend to occur in the majority of cases. Examples include:

  • Numbness: if you have poor circulation in your legs, for example, you may go through periods when you lose sensation in your legs. Some people have described the effects of poor circulation as feeling as if part of their body has fallen asleep.
  • Tingling and pins and needles: tingling sensations are often followed by numbness.
  • Pain: poor circulation can cause different types of pain, including a stinging sensation and throbbing pains.
  • Muscle cramps

Less common symptoms include:

  • Reduced cognitive function and difficulty retaining information
  • Tiredness
  • Inflammation and water retention (this is particularly common when circulation is reduced in the legs and feet)
  • Weak hair and nails
  • Dry and discolored skin
  • Headaches
  • Coldness (this is most common in the hands and feet)
  • Hair loss
  • Varicose veins and spider veins: varicose veins form when the veins beneath the skin surface become inflamed, twisted and tangled
  • Leg ulcers

Some conditions that cause poor circulation may cause some of the symptoms listed above, in addition to signs that are unique to the underlying cause. An example is erectile disfunction in men who are diagnosed with peripheral artery disease.

What causes poor circulation?

There are many conditions and health problems that may put you at risk of poor circulation. Some are much more common than others. Here are some examples:

Peripheral artery disease

Also known as PAD, peripheral artery disease is a common cause of poor circulation in the legs. PAD reduces blood flow because it causes the blood vessels to narrow. This condition is often associated with atherosclerosis, a disease that occurs when fatty deposits collect on the interior walls of the arteries. The outcome of both conditions is reduced blood flow, especially to the extremities. As a result, the following symptoms occur:

  • Tingling sensations
  • Numbness

In the long-term, reduced blood flow to the extremities can cause nerve damage and damage to the soft tissue.

Conditions that affect your circulation can be very serious and even life-threatening. Your body relies on your circulatory system to deliver blood, which carries oxygen, and essential nutrients, around the body. If blood flow is reduced, this can prevent oxygen from reaching your vital organs. It is particularly dangerous when blood flow through the carotid artery is restricted. If blood flow to the brain is impaired, this can result in a stroke. If oxygen cannot reach the heart muscle, this can cause a heart attack.

Who is affected by PAD?

Most commonly, PAD affects people over the age of 50 years old, but it is also diagnosed in younger people. Smokers tend to have a significantly higher risk of PAD than non-smokers, and smoking is also a major risk factor for atherosclerosis.

Varicose veins

Varicose veins are swollen veins, which are often clearly visible beneath the surface of the skin. They are usually purple or blue in color, and they are caused by the tiny valves in the walls of the veins failing to work properly. The outcome is twisted, tangled veins, through which blood cannot flow as freely as usual. It’s most common to find varicose veins in the back of the legs.

There is evidence to suggest that genetics play a role when it comes to determining your risk of developing varicose veins. If you have close relatives with varicose veins, you may have a higher risk. Varicose veins are most commonly found in women, and they can also be associated with being overweight or obese.

In some cases, varicose veins can increase the risk of blood clots, another risk factor for poor circulation.

Blood clots

Blood clots can develop in any part of the body, but clots that form in the arms and legs are most significant. These are the types of clots that can reduce blood flow and result in bad circulation. There are many reasons why blood clots form. At any given time, the body undergoes a series of complex processes, and if the sequences that are responsible for clotting aren’t put into action and completed properly, this can result in excessive bleeding or the formation of blood clots.

In some cases, blood clots can be very serious. The most dangerous type of clot forms in the leg and breaks away, traveling to the heart or lungs. A clot that travels to the lungs is known as a pulmonary embolism, and this can be fatal. It is also possible for clots to cause strokes and heart attacks.

If clots are identified quickly, they can often be treated effectively without any risk of long-term complications.


Obesity is linked to an increased risk of several conditions that contribute to poor circulation, including diabetes and varicose veins. When you’re overweight, your body is under strain, and it’s more difficult for your heart to pump blood around the body and your blood vessels to carry blood to your organs. If you are overweight, you may find that even sitting or standing for a long period of time can cause you to develop symptoms related to bad circulation.


Diabetes is a condition, which affects your body’s ability to control and regulate blood sugar levels. It can occur as a result of producing insulin that doesn’t work properly or not producing enough insulin. Diabetes causes a range of symptoms, and one of those is an elevated risk of poor circulation.

If you have bad circulation, you may find that you experience muscle cramps and throbbing pain, which can become more intense when you exercise. In advanced cases of diabetes, nerve damage may make it difficult to detect signs of poor circulation.

Diabetes is also a risk factor for heart disease, high blood pressure (hypertension) and atherosclerosis.

Lifestyle factors

You may be at risk of poor circulation if you:

  • Smoke
  • Live a sedentary lifestyle
  • Spend a lot of time sitting down (for example if you have an office job)
  • Have a poor diet

Raynaud’s disease

Raynaud’s disease is a circulatory condition, which affects the hands and feet. If you suffer from Raynaud’s disease, you’re likely to experience extreme symptoms, especially in cold weather. This condition occurs as a result of the arteries in the hands and feet becoming narrower. It causes the hands and feet to become discolored, and you may also experience an intense tingling sensation. The fingers and toes bear the brunt of the pain, but other parts of the body, including the lips and ears, can also be affected.

Raynaud’s disease is most common among women, and it tends to affect people living in colder climates more than those living in hotter countries.  Treating Raynaud’s disease often eliminates the symptoms of poor circulation.

How is poor circulation diagnosed?

If you have symptoms of poor circulation, it’s wise to seek advice from a doctor. When you go for a consultation, your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms, and ask you questions about your health in general, whether you’ve experienced any other signs and if you have family history of any conditions that are known to increase the risk of bad circulation. The information you provide can help your doctor to narrow down potential causes and ascertain which kinds of diagnostic tests will be most useful and effective.

The first test your doctor is likely to carry out is a physical examination. This will enable them to check for signs such as swelling and discomfort. In addition, your doctor may also order these tests:

  • Blood tests: the results of blood tests can be used to measure your blood glucose levels, test for antibodies for inflammatory conditions, such as Raynaud’s disease, and detect signs which may be indicative of a blood clot
  • Ultrasound scan
  • CT scan
  • Blood pressure tests (this will often include testing blood pressure in the legs)


The results of your diagnostic tests will inform doctors about potential causes, and also enable them to formulate a treatment plan. To find an effective treatment, you first need to identify the underlying cause. The results of your tests will be explained to you so that you understand why you’re suffering from poor circulation.

How is poor circulation treated?

The type of treatment recommended by doctors depends on the cause of poor circulation. Treatments are administered both to treat the underlying cause and ease associated symptoms.

Treatment methods include:

  • Wearing compression socks to improve circulation and reduce the risk of blood clots
  • Using medication to prevent clotting or thin the blood
  • Using medication, such as calcium channel and alpha blockers to treat Raynaud’s disease
  • Undertaking physical therapy to boost circulation: this will involve doing a series of specially designed exercises on a regular basis
  • Laser treatment for spider veins and varicose veins: varicose vein treatment can prevent poor circulation, but it can also help people to feel more confident
  • Insulin treatment for diabetes


Lifestyle changes

In addition to medical treatments and therapies, lifestyle changes can also help to prevent bad circulation.

If you have type 2 diabetes or you’re overweight, you may be advised to make changes to your diet and to increase the amount of physical activity you do. If you eat the right foods in the right quantities, and you make an effort to be more active, you may be able to control diabetes without medication, and you should also find that your circulation improves.

If your job involves spending long periods of time either sitting down or standing up, take regular breaks to stretch your legs, and try and keep your body moving while you’re working. Even simple exercises like flexing and pointing your ankles can make a positive difference. You don’t have to undertake an intensive training regime to battle poor circulation. Simple things like going for a gentle walk every morning can be incredibly beneficial.

Natural remedies

If you’re interested in natural remedies, you may want to consider making simple changes to your diet, including increasing your intake of fiber and adding herbs. Herbal remedies that have been linked to improved circulation include:

  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Cayenne

It’s also really important to stay hydrated, so drink plenty of water, and try and ensure you stick to the recommended weekly intake of alcohol, which is 14 units for both males and females. If you suffer from poor circulation, it’s also advisable to cut down on caffeinated drinks, such as coffee.

Some people also find alternative or complementary therapies, such as hydrotherapy, reflexology and massage therapy beneficial. Exercises like yoga can also help to increase blood flow.

Preventing poor circulation

Sometimes, it’s not possible to prevent causes of poor circulation, but there are things you can do to lower your risk, including:

  • Exercising on a regular basis
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Avoiding smoking
  • Drinking only in moderation
  • Seeing your doctor if you have symptoms
  • Staying hydrated
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Keeping warm in the colder months


What’s the prognosis for poor circulation?

The prognosis for poor circulation is good, provided that the underlying cause can be identified and treated early. If you do experience symptoms of bad circulation, don’t hesitate to see your doctor. If they can ascertain the cause early, this reduces the risk of complications. If conditions are left untreated, this could result in serious problems.

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