Get your blood flowin’: The link between muscle fatigue & poor circulation

February 23, 2021

Get your blood flowin’: The link between muscle fatigue & poor circulation

In this article:

  • How does the blood circulatory system work?
  • Symptoms of poor circulation
  • Causes of poor blood circulation
  • How to improve blood circulation

The Ebbs and flows of blood circulation

The blood circulatory system is responsible for delivering nutrients and oxygen to every cell in the body. Our body contains about 60,000 miles of blood vessels, all working to provide nourishment and oxygen to every muscle and tissue in our body. In fact, we have two blood circulatory systems, the systemic circulation which provides blood to organs, tissues, and cells, and the pulmonary circulation in which the fresh oxygen we breathe in enters the blood. All the while, carbon dioxide is being released from the heart. These blood vessels, like cogs and wheels or pumps and pipes, are transporting blood from your heart all throughout the entire body; arteries carry blood away from the heart, while the veins carry it back.

When all these blood vessels are healthy, clear, and flexible, the muscles (including the heart) are being nourished and the brain is firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, maintaining optimal circulation isn't always easy. When any area of our body is deprived of oxygen, the results can be much more severe than tingling in your fingertips. Poor circulation can lead to fluctuating blood pressure, high cholesterol, blood clots, and much more. All of which increase your risk factors for more serious conditions, some of which are fatal. No matter how severe or seemingly mild, poor circulation is nothing to sweep under the rug.

Symptoms of poor circulation

The symptoms of poor circulation are hard to identify right away. They can be subtle, or passable as a side effect of inadequate sleep, or even something that can be solved with an over the counter painkiller. However, they might be a sign of something much more severe.

  • Muscle Fatigue & Muscle Cramps: You might have noticed that your legs and feet are feeling fatigued after spending long periods of time standing or sitting. In the gym, you might find that your legs or arms can't "keep up" with the rest of your body or cramp up unexpectedly. When certain muscles and tissues aren't getting the oxygen and nutrients they need, this can lead to cramping, stiffness, and pain. One telltale sign that your muscle fatigue is due to circulation problems is if you feel pain or throbbing in the area after resting, being in the cold, or standing up after a long period of being seated. This is due to the blood rushing to the muscles and causing the blood vessels to expand rapidly.
  • Skin Discoloration: When deprived of warm, red blood, the skin can start to turn pale or blue. If the capillaries are leaking, it may turn your skin purple. This can happen in any area of the body but is common in hands, feet, ears, lips, nipples, fingers, and toes.
  • Fatigue: If you're feeling fatigued mentally and physically, this could also be a sign of poor circulation. In times of poor circulation, the heart has to work extra hard to try and disperse blood, which can cause unusual fatigue.
  • Numbness, Tingling, and Coldness: These are all common signs of poor circulation, especially in the hands and in the feet.
  • Swelling in the Lower Extremities: Swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet is another common and serious side effect of poor blood circulation. This is called edema, or a buildup of fluids in the lower half of the body. The pressure can even lead to forcing blood out of the blood vessels and into the surrounding tissues. This pressure can also cause leg pain, tight skin, and heaviness in the lower body.
  • Leg ulcers: When blood pools within the blood vessels, it can form ulcers in the lower legs and feet rather than returning blood to the heart. This is also referred to as Venous Insufficiency.
  • Varicose veins: Varicose veins are swollen, twisted veins just below the skin that are often raised and dark purple. They are typically the result of high blood pressure (hypertension) that weakens the vein walls.
  • Cognitive dysfunction: Poor blood circulation also affects your cognitive function and can cause memory loss and difficulty concentrating.

Causes of poor blood circulation

One of the most common causes of poor circulation is blockages or narrowed blood vessels. This can happen when calcium and plaque build up within the veins and cause the blood vessels to become stiff. A number of conditions can lead to poor circulation and in return, they can be worsened by it.

  • Atherosclerosis: This is one of the most common causes of poor circulation. It is a vascular disease that is characterized by plaque building up within the arteries, causing them to stiffen and restrict blood flow. Typically, atherosclerosis affects blood vessels in the brain and heart. Plaque build up in the carotid artery restricts blood flow to the brain and can result in a stroke. Build up around the heart can lead to heart attacks. When it affects the arms and legs, this is called Peripheral Artery Disease. In severe cases, PAD can lead to extreme pain, a reduced ability to walk, gangrene, and even amputation if left untreated
  • Obesity: Another extremely common cause of poor circulation is obesity. It may also increase the risk of varicose veins, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and blood sugar regulation.
  • Raynaud's disease: Raynaud's disease causes the veins to contract and prevent blood from flowing to the fingers and toes. This results in completely white fingertips that can then turn purple before blood is rushed back in.
  • Blood clots: Blood clots can also restrict your body's natural flow of blood and cause a number of different health issues, including poor circulation. If a blood clot from your legs or arms were to break away, it could cause a clot in your heart leading to a heart attack, pulmonary embolism, or stroke.

How to improve blood circulation

Depending on the severity and underlying cause of your blood circulation, it may require simple lifestyle changes or a more robust treatment plan, per your doctor's discretion. Diabetic patients will likely be prescribed insulin. People with Raynaud's disease may be given alpha-blockers and calcium channel blockers. Endoscopic surgery may be recommended to treat varicose veins.

In any case, you should seek specific medical advice from a trusted doctor to gauge the severity and find the cause of your circulation issues. Other simple, nonprescription methods for increasing blood circulation include:

  • Massage
  • Using compression stockings
  • Drinking lots of water. It is recommended to drink 1.5L of an electrolyte-rich sports drink while exercising to stay hydrated and prevent muscle fatigue.
  • Drinking green tea daily
  • Dry brushing to drain lymph
  • Reducing stress
  • Cutting back on alcohol
  • Elevating your legs
  • Eating a healthier diet. Increasing the amount of carbohydrates you eat, beginning seven days prior to exercising, is a great way to prevent muscle fatigue. This is also known as carb loading.
  • Doing exercises to boost blood circulation. These include taking walks, doing yoga, and including simple stretches while seated or lying down, such as ankle rotations, foam roller stretches, heel lifts, squats, and cycling. These can all get your blood flowing!

Summary Points

  • Our body contains about 60,000 miles of blood vessels, all working to provide nourishment and oxygen to every muscle and tissue in our body
  • One telltale sign that your muscle fatigue is due to circulation problems is if you feel pain or throbbing in the area after resting
  • Swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet is another common and serious side effect of poor blood circulation
  • Raynaud's disease causes the veins to contract and prevent blood from flowing to the fingers and toes

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