Circulation Symptoms

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What are the signs of circulation problems?

Circulation symptoms occur when blood flow to a part of your body is reduced, usually as a result of a narrowing of the arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood rich in oxygen to all parts of the body. Typically this occurs due to the plaque buildup in the artery walls, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Risk factors for atherosclerosis include smoking, diabetes, obesity, and elevated blood lipid (fat) levels. It results in a narrowing of the arteries, and this narrowing prevents adequate blood flow.

Circulation symptoms can also arise in the veins (blood vessels that carry blood back to the heart). Blood clots in the veins may cause local inflammation and swelling (thrombophlebitis), or the blood clots may break off and travel to other sites in the body, in a process known as embolization. Pulmonary embolism is a life-threatening condition caused by a blockage of an artery in the lung due to a blood clot that has traveled to this location.

Circulation symptoms can occur in the head, arms, kidneys, stomach, and other organs. When blood flow to an organ is interrupted, especially over time, organ failure can result. Interruption of blood flow to the brain (stroke) or heart (heart attack) are serious causes of circulation symptoms. The legs are another common site for circulation symptoms. As the flow of blood is blocked or slowed significantly due to peripheral artery disease in the legs, you may feel pain, heaviness and numbness in your legs, especially during and after walking or climbing stairs, when your muscles need more blood and are not able to get enough.

You may prevent or improve circulation symptoms by making important lifestyle changes, particularly by giving up smoking and limiting fats, cholesterol, and refined sugars in your diet, as well as asking your physician to recommend a good exercise program for you.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, experience chest pain or pressure, difficulty breathing; sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body; slurred speech; loss of vision; paralysis or inability to move a body part; sudden, severe headache; or confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment. Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for circulation symptoms in your legs, but symptoms persist or cause you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with circulation symptoms?

Circulation symptoms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Frequently, symptoms that affect the circulatory system will also involve other body systems.

Musculoskeletal symptoms that may occur along with circulation symptoms

Circulation symptoms frequently accompany other symptoms that affect the musculoskeletal system including:

  • Leg pain
  • Muscle cramping in the legs, buttocks, thighs, calves and feet
  • Pain, heaviness and numbness in your legs
  • Pain that increases with muscle exertion and diminishes with rest

Neurologic symptoms that may occur along with circulation symptoms

In some cases, circulation symptoms may accompany other symptoms that affect the nervous system including:

  • Confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment
  • Inability to speak or slurred speech
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part (usually on one side)
  • Weakness (loss of strength)

Renal symptoms that may occur along with circulation symptoms

In some cases, circulation symptoms may accompany other symptoms that affect the renal system including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with circulation symptoms

Circulation symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Bluish coloration of the lips or fingernails (cyanosis)
  • Cooler skin in the feet or hands
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Poor nail and hair growth on the extremities
  • Slow-healing wounds or sores
  • Warmth, swelling or redness of the skin, in the case of thrombophlebitis
  • Weak pulse in the extremities

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, circulation symptoms may signal a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Inability to speak or slurred speech
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision
  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part
  • Sudden severe headache
  • Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body

What causes circulation symptoms?

Circulation symptoms occur when blood flow to a part of the body is reduced, usually as a result of a narrowing of the arteries, the blood vessels that carry blood rich in oxygen to all parts of the body. Usually this happens through the plaque buildup of atherosclerosis. Risk factors for atherosclerosis include smoking, diabetes, obesity, and elevated blood lipids. This narrowing of the arteries prevents adequate blood flow. Circulation symptoms can also result from clot formation and inflammation within the veins.

Serious or life-threatening causes of circulation symptoms

Circulation symptoms in general are caused by blockages in the arteries or veins, which can be serious and potentially life threatening. These causes include:

  • Atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries; atherosclerosis is a type of arteriosclerosis)

  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD, also called peripheral vascular disease, or PVD, which is a narrowing or blockage of arteries due to arteriosclerosis, which limits blood flow to the extremities)

  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in an artery within the lung that has broken off and traveled from another site)

  • Thrombophlebitis (clotting and inflammation of the veins)

Questions for diagnosing the cause of circulation symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your circulation symptoms including:

  • Has anyone in your family had heart disease or blood vessel disease?

  • If you have leg pains, where exactly do you feel these pains? What part of your leg?

  • Have you had any chest pain?

  • How long have you felt these symptoms? When did you first notice them?

  • Do you smoke?

  • Do you have diabetes? How is your diet?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • What medications are you taking?

What are the potential complications of circulation symptoms?

Because circulation symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

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  1. What is peripheral arterial disease? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Diseases and Conditions Index. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/pad/pad_what.html
  2. Peripheral arterial disease. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/peripheralarterialdisease.html
  3. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy.Philadelphia: Saunders, 2012.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Dec 8
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