Poor circulation in the feet can cause the feet to become cold, discolored, or numb. Sometimes, it is a symptom of an underlying condition.

The body transports blood, oxygen, and nutrients to cells around the body through the circulatory system. If blood vessels in an area close, harden, or narrow, a person may develop reduced circulation.

In this article, we will look at the symptoms of poor circulation in the feet, potential causes, treatments, and self-care techniques.

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People with poor circulation may notice their feet feel cold or numb. They may also notice discoloration. The feet may turn red, blue, purple, or white.

These symptoms may worsen in certain situations, such as when a person sits still for long periods of time or goes outside in cold weather. However, for some people, these symptoms may be constant or flare up due to an underlying condition.

Additional symptoms of poor circulation can include:

  • dry or cracked skin
  • hair loss on the legs or feet
  • weak toenails
  • slow wound healing

Below are some of the underlying conditions that may cause reduced circulation.

Raynaud’s disease

Raynaud’s disease syndrome causes blood vessels to narrow when someone is cold or, sometimes, when stressed. This limits the amount of blood flowing to the fingers and toes. Rarely, it may affect the nose, ears, nipples, and lips.

The symptoms include:

These symptoms can last as little as 1 minute or as long as several hours.

Most people with Raynaud’s disease have the primary form of the condition. Some people have secondary Raynaud’s, which occurs as a result of another illness. Secondary Raynaud’s tends to be more severe.

There is no cure for Raynaud’s, but it is possible to reduce the symptoms and potentially reduce the frequency of attacks with the help of medical treatment and lifestyle changes.

Acrocyanosis

Acrocyanosis is a condition that causes the extremities, such as the toes, to turn blue. This occurs when the blood vessels constrict, preventing blood flow and oxygen from moving through that part of the body.

It is a similar condition to Raynaud’s phenomenon, but scientists understand it much less than they do Raynaud’s. The main symptoms include:

  • blue-tinged fingers or toes
  • cold, clammy skin
  • swelling
  • a normal pulse

As with Raynaud’s, there are two types of acrocyanosis: primary and secondary. Primary acrocyanosis occurs on its own and typically affects both sides of the body, for example, both feet. Scientists are not sure what causes it or how best to treat it.

Secondary acrocyanosis often affects only one side of the body and can be a result of many conditions, including eating disorders, blood disorders, and genetic conditions.

Diabetes

If a person has diabetes, they are at risk of their blood vessels becoming damaged. This may happen if they experience high blood glucose levels for extended periods of time.

If a person with diabetes does not receive any treatment, they could develop reduced circulation in the feet, as well as foot ulcers that do not heal.

Managing diabetes effectively can help prevent foot problems. People with diabetes should receive an annual foot examination to make sure that they have not developed poor circulation, ulcers, or neuropathy.

Arteriosclerosis

If a person’s blood pressure is too high, it can cause arteriosclerosis. This occurs when the arteries harden, and blood cannot travel through them easily.

Some people who have arteriosclerosis do not exhibit any symptoms, while others may develop some. The symptoms vary depending on which arteries the condition has affected, and they may include:

Treatment for arteriosclerosis may include medication, such as medicine to control a person’s cholesterol, or possibly surgery to open blocked arteries or remove plaque buildup.

Peripheral artery disease

If left untreated, arteriosclerosis can turn into peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD occurs when plaque builds up in arteries. This can reduce or even stop blood flow, resulting in tissue death and potentially amputation.

Symptoms may include:

Prescription medication can improve symptoms in people with reduced circulation. In more severe cases, a person may require surgery.

Factors that can increase the likelihood of low circulation include:

  • physical inactivity
  • smoking
  • high cholesterol
  • high blood pressure

Smoking can reduce blood flow by affecting a person’s cardiovascular system. It raises the risk of arteriosclerosis and PAD.

Additionally, smoking is a risk factor for a form of vasculitis known as Buerger’s disease, which can cause severe Raynaud’s. In some cases, Buerger’s can cause gangrene.

Caffeine, alcohol, and stress can also constrict blood vessels, causing or worsening circulation problems. Certain sitting positions may also reduce blood flow, according to a 2015 study.

A doctor can diagnose circulation problems and any underlying issues that may be causing them. They may ask about a person’s medical history, as well as their symptoms and when they occur.

Doctors may diagnose Raynaud’s or acrocyanosis based on symptoms and a physical examination. They may also try cold stimulation to observe the body’s response, or a nailfold capillaroscopy, which can detect diseases associated with secondary Raynaud’s.

Doctors diagnose PAD via a physical examination and by comparing the blood pressure in a person’s arm versus their ankle. They can diagnose diabetes using a blood sugar or urine test.

The best way to improve circulation in the feet is to treat any underlying conditions that may be causing it. If doctors cannot pinpoint a cause, however, a number of self-care strategies may help.

People can try:

  • Moving more: A 2020 study found that performing simple leg stretches can help improve vascular function after 12 weeks. The stretching regime made arteries less stiff, which helped them dilate. If sitting for a long period of time, set reminders to get up and move around.
  • Massage: Massaging the feet can stimulate circulation. People with Raynaud’s may also find that it helps prevent or shorten attacks.
  • Relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and tai chi can help with managing unavoidable stress.
  • Avoiding caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol: Caffeine and alcohol can constrict blood vessels and exacerbate Raynaud’s. Smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Wearing compression socks: Compression socks apply pressure to the legs and feet, forcing blood to travel back toward the heart.
  • Staying warm: If circulation problems get worse in cold conditions, keep the home at a comfortable temperature and wrap up in layers. Use hand or foot warmers when needed.

Anyone experiencing persistent circulation problems in the feet should speak with a doctor. Sometimes, this is a symptom of an underlying condition that requires treatment.

A person should call 911 or contact the local emergency department if they experience:

  • swelling in one or both limbs
  • pain that begins at the calf in the affected limb
  • warmth
  • skin discoloration

These symptoms can indicate deep vein thrombosis, which can be life threatening.

Poor circulation can occur for many reasons. Sometimes, it is due to a disease that requires treatment. However, it can also occur on its own, as a result of a condition such as primary Raynaud’s.

Staying warm and active, wearing compression socks, and managing stress may help people relieve the symptoms of poor circulation in the feet. However, it is important to seek guidance from a doctor so that they can rule out underlying conditions.

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