When Cold Hands and Feet Point to Larger Circulation Problems

Do you often have cold hands and feet? You might brush it off as needing to throw on an extra layer. But, as Himanshu Tandon, MD, cardiologist practicing at UnityPoint Health, explains, cold hands and feet may point to circulation problems.

“Circulation trouble consists of reduced blood flow to a limb or region (arterial disease) or a reduced blood and fluid return from a part or region of the body to the heart (venous and lymphatic disease),” Dr. Tandon says.

Arterial disease results from cholesterol build up and inflammation in blood vessels. Signs of arterial disease often include pain or discomfort in muscles (not joints) when walking or using that limb, usually relieved with rest. Additionally, someone may experience discoloration of skin with loss of hair and muscle mass, and in extreme cases, blackish discoloration of toes and fingers.

Venous and lymphatic diseases are caused by damage to valves in veins and tiny blood vessels, which can happen from previous surgeries, traumas, blood clots or even infection. Also, some of these disorders may be present at birth.

Because the two types of disease impacting circulation are so different, the right diagnosis of circulatory disorder is important.

“Most circulatory disorders benefit from exercise, weight loss, control of blood pressure and blood sugar levels and stopping smoking completely. Medications, such as aspirin and cholesterol-lowering pills, called statins, are helpful in arterial diseases. In addition, for venous disease, wearing compression socks and taking fluid-removal pills also helps. Lymphatic diseases require a special massage-like therapy, called lymphedema therapy. In select patients, certain procedures may be done to improve the circulation,” Dr. Tandon says.

Certain groups of people may be more at-risk for circulation problems, including the elderly, people with diabetes, smokers, individuals with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, previous blood clots, surgery to any limb or prior diagnosis of heart disease.

“Whenever someone notices any discomfort, persistent coolness, swelling or loss of muscle mass in an affected part of the body, as well as any discoloration of the toes and fingers, it’s time to contact your primary care provider to discuss your need for further assessment of circulatory problems,” Dr. Tandon says.