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Understanding and Surviving Poor Leg Circulation

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A blood vessel condition known as peripheral artery disease (PVD) is a slow and progressive circulation disorder that can restrict adequate blood flow to your legs and feet. Poor circulation prevents normal functioning, and can injure leg nerves and other tissues. If you have or develop PVD, these facts and suggestions will help you live with it.

Peripheral Vascular Disease Causes

Arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, occurs when fatty material, or plaque, builds up on your arteries’ walls. This narrows and stiffens your arteries so they can’t dilate properly. The resulting decreases vital blood flow to your limbs, and reduces the oxygen and nutrients your tissues need. Clots may form on your artery walls, limiting your blood vessel’s size further and even blocking off major arteries.


Approximately half of peripheral vascular disease patients are symptom free. If you’re like the others, your most common symptom will be intermittent pain, cramping, achiness or discomfort in your thighs, calves or feet during exercise. This may occur in one or both legs, depending on the narrow or clogged artery’s location. Pain disappears during rest when your muscles need less blood flow. Other peripheral vascular disease symptoms may include:
  • Muscle numbness, weakness, fatigue or heaviness
  • Weak or absent leg and feet pulses
  • Calf muscle atrophy
  • Restricted mobility
  • Pale skin upon elevating legs
  • Reddish-blue discoloration on extremities
  • Decreased skin temperature
  • Thin, brittle, shiny, tight leg and feet skin
  • Hair loss on legs
  • Thickened, opaque toenails
  • Burning or aching during rest, usually in the toes while lying flat at night
  • Painful, non-bleeding, usually black sores on your feet or toes that heal slowly
  • Non-healing wounds over pressure points such as heels or ankles
  • Cramps and pain at night
  • Pain that worsens when you raise your legs and improves when you dangle them over the side of your bed
  • Tingling or pain in your feet or toes that’s so severe that the weight of socks or bed covers hurts

Risk Factors

Because diabetes and smoking impair blood flow, they have the highest risk of complications. Avoiding these conditions is imperative to avoiding PVD. However, there are other, unchangeable risk factors that include:
  • Age and gender
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Stroke history
  • Family history of elevated blood lipids like high cholesterol, hypertension or PVD
Changeable and treatable risk factors include:
  • Smoking or tobacco usage
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Impaired glucose tolerance
  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Abnormal cholesterol
  • Kidney disease with hemodialysis


Manage your PVD risk factors to avoid this disease.
  • Control diabetes.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco and avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Lose weight.
  • Modify your diet to reduce fat, cholesterol and simple carbohydrates (such as sweets) while increasing fruits and vegetables.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes daily.
  • Lower your high blood pressure.
  • Treat high cholesterol with medication.
  • Reduce your blood clot risk with medication.
Complications Decreased or absent blood flow causes most PVD complications. Complications are rather serious and include:
  • Gangrene, which is dead tissue
  • Male impotence
  • Limb amputation
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke, which is three times more likely with PVD
  • Death


Besides controlling your symptoms, treatment should strive to halt PVD’s progression to lower your risk of pvd1developing complications. You can usually control PVD of the legs without surgery. In severe cases, surgery offers symptom relief. Your doctor will customize your treatment based on:
  • Your age, overall health and medical history
  • Extent of your disease
  • Your signs and symptoms
  • Medication, therapy or procedure tolerance
  • Expected course of your disease
  • Your preference
Try these lifestyle modifications to reduce symptoms.
  • If you smoke, stop. Smoking narrows your arteries, decreases your blood’s ability to carry oxygen and increases your blood clot risk.
  • Take care of your feet, especially if you also have diabetes. Decreased circulation makes infections more likely and tissues heal slowly. Wear comfortable, properly fitted shoes.
  • Balance exercise and rest. Alternate physical activity to the point of pain with rest periods. As new, small blood vessels form, your circulation may improve.
  • Get proper nutrition.
  • Use pain relievers as needed.
Consider these medical treatment options.
  • Seek aggressive treatment for diabetes, hypertension, elevated cholesterol and other existing conditions that may aggravate PVD.
  • Take medications to improve blood flow. Plavix (Clopidogrel), an antiplatelet agent, increases blood flow and inhibits blood clots. If you take it after a medical procedure to prevent clots, combine it with aspirin for many months to years as your doctor directs. Pletal (cilostazol) dilates arteries in moderate to severe cases that aren’t candidates for surgery.
  • Angioplasty creates a larger opening in an artery to increase blood flow.
  • Peripheral artery bypass surgery reroutes your blood flow.
If you have peripheral vascular disease risk factors, do everything you can to avoid poor leg circulation. If you have or develop PVD, be proactive with personal care management and medical treatment.    

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