Poor circulation is a common problem, but can have serious effects on the foot and leg if not treated appropriately. The body's tissues receive oxygen and nutrients through the blood stream. The blood is delivered to the far reaches of the body through the arteries, having been pumped through the heart from the lungs, where the blood receives it's oxygen. Once at the tissue, smaller blood vessels called arterioles and capillaries distribute the nutrients everywhere that needs it. The blood then collects in the veins, removed of nutrients and oxygen and carrying waste chemicals from the tissue. From an ever increasing system of veins the blood is returned to the heart and lungs, where the process starts all over again. When this system begins to fail, there can be serious problems that develop in the parts of the body beyond where the problem arose.
Beyond the heart and lungs, the arteries are the most important part of this system. Arteries are muscled tubes that help to pump blood to the far reaches of the body, including the legs and feet. Unfortunately, many diseases and health problems contribute to hardening and blockage of the inner walls of the arteries that limit the amount of blood that can flow through them. This hardening can be at one small point, or it can be in numerous spots along the length of any given artery. The blockage can even loosen from the artery wall and travel downward, becoming lodged in a smaller artery or arteriole further down the leg or foot. When the blockage is severe enough, the blood cannot get through and the body has to find an alternate route around. If no other nearby artery can reroute the blood further down the leg, then the tissue that was supposed to receive the blood and nutrients below the blocked artery begins a slow starvation process. In the legs, as in the rest of the body, there are numerous branches of arteries from the main trunks flowing into the leg that can deliver blood to the tissues. Unless the blockage is in one of the main trunks, some flow should get to most of the foot tissue if one of the side branches is blocked. However, not all of the foot or leg will stay healthy, and some complications can occur. It is also not uncommon for the main trunk arteries to be come blocked themselves.
Complications from blocked leg arteries can include severe pain when one tries to exert oneself or elevate the foot, as a result of the oxygen and nutrient starvation the tissues are experiencing. This pain is difficult to control, and usually only helped by dangling the foot. Continued starvation eventually will lead to wounds to form on the skin, with gangrene soon to follow. Many people with untreated poor circulation of the arteries require foot or leg amputations once gangrene sets in. However, the loss of circulation can be detected well before one reaches the point of gangrene. Even though this condition does not become very noticeable to the person who has it until later on during it's development, there are initial signs that something is not well. Early signs of poor arterial circulation include a deep purple-redness to the skin, cold foot or leg skin, loss of hair, thin skin, and poor or absent foot pulses. Anyone who has some combination of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke history, or smoking history (current or past) is at risk for arterial disease of the legs, and needs to have an evaluation and possibly a non-invasive, non-painful screening test done to determine the blood flow to the feet. With early detection, a change in lifestyle or a simple minimally invasive procedure to clean out the blocked artery can be performed to fix the problem before it becomes more serious and requires an extensive procedure like a bypass to restore blood flow, or an amputation if it is not repairable.