How Does My Circulation Affect My Legs?
Your body’s circulation is similar to the plumbing in your house, with fresh incoming water pipes (arteries) and outgoing sewer lines (veins.).
What Exactly IS Circulation?
Your circulation is mainly made up of arteries and veins. Your arteries are a high pressure system that brings fresh blood and oxygen to your entire body. Your heart is the main pump that forces the blood out through the arteries. Think of the water main that comes into your house under high pressure bringing fresh, clean water to all parts of your house (sinks, showers, refrigerator, washing machine, etc.) Your body needs the fresh blood and oxygen to live, so if you have a blockage in an artery (from smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, or high cholesterol), the body part that artery supplies dies. If the water pipe leading to your washing machine was blocked, the washing machine would no longer function. If an artery leading to your heart is blocked, that part of your heart muscle dies, and this is called a heart attack. If an artery in your leg is blocked, the part of your leg that artery supplies will die, and you end up with an amputation.
On the other side of the circulation are your veins. Your veins take the old, used up blood with all of the toxic waste back to your heart. This is similar to the sewer lines in your house. Your veins are a low pressure/passive system (like the water that travels down your drainage pipes), and they rely on a series of one-way valves (like check valves) to keep the blood moving in the correct direction (toward the heart.) On the way back to the heart, the blood goes through the filtrations systems (liver and kidneys) to remove toxic waste, and also passes through the lungs to get fresh oxygen.
How Does Poor Venous Circulation Affect My Legs?
Your legs are like the basement of your body. Sewer pipes in your basement actually have to bring water UP to the first floor in order to get the water out to the main sewer line. So in addition to the one-way “check valves”, your body needs a “sump pump” to push the blood out of the basement, up to the main level where your heart lives. That “sump pump” is your calf muscle. Every time you take a step, your calf muscle squeezes the vein, forcing the valves open, and pushing the blood up. When you calf muscle relaxes, the valve snap closed, preventing the blood from flowing back down into your leg. Venous insufficiency is a condition (mainly inherited) where those valves don’t close properly. When that happens, it is similar to when your basement sump pump check valve is broken….water will collect in your basement. In your veins, malfunctioning valves is called Reflux. The more severe the reflux, the more water (blood) will collect in your basement (legs.) The lowest point in the your legs will suffer the most, as that is where the water pressure is the highest. Eventually, a pipe will burst, and now you have a venous ulcer!
How Can I Treat Poor Venous Circulation?
One step is the use of compression stockings. These garments can reduce the damage caused to the skin from the leg swelling. They function by creating external pressure to your legs which is tightest at the foot and ankle (where the venous pressure is the highest), and get slightly looser as they go up your leg. However, ultimately it is the underlying cause of the leg swelling, venous insufficiency, that needs to be treated. Treatment of venous insufficiency involves eliminating the malfunctioning vein/s, through what is called ablation, so the other functioning veins can more effectively do their job. There are a variety of ways to do this: heat, injections, glue, etc.
How Can I Prevent Poor Venous Circulation?
The first step is recognizing your risk factors and early symptoms. Vein disease runs in families and can be aggravated in jobs where you spend long periods of time with inactivity of your calf muscle (drivers, pilots, teachers, factory workers, etc.) Pregnancy can also trigger worsening vein disease. Early symptoms include: leg pain (throbbing/aching/cramping), heaviness, swelling, fatigue, and even restless legs. Some more obvious signs are: varicose veins, skin discoloration in the lower leg, and ulcers.
If you have identified yourself as potentially having venous disease, the next step is diagnosis and treatment. Whether that treatment means wearing a compression garment (stocking or wrap) or if it means treating the malfunctioning veins themselves, the goal is to stop the progression from swelling, to skin changes, to ulcer formation. Center for Vein Restoration offers full spectrum diagnosis and treatment of venous disease to patients in a comfortable outpatient setting. Call us for a consultation either by telemedicine or in-person.
Author: Zoe Deol, MD, FACS, DABVLM
Regional Medical Director at Center for Vein Restoration and Center for Vascular Medicine
Dr. Deol is double board certified in general surgery and venous & lymphatic medicine. She is scientifically published; and she is also a national and international speaker/educator on venous and lymphatic disease. She currently practices in metro-Detroit and the greater Toledo area.