The blood supply to your hands and feet is constantly controlled, depending on how hot or cold it is, how warm your body is, changes in your blood pressure and lots of other factors. A thin layer of muscle running around artery walls narrows your blood vessels to reduce blood supply, or widens them to increase blood flow.
When the blood supply is reduced, your hands and feet become cold and then dusky blue. If you have severe circulation problems, you may start to develop pain in your calves when you exercise because the muscles you’re working aren’t getting enough oxygen. This is called intermittent claudication and it may limit how far you can walk.
A number of other conditions can also cause circulation problems. These include Raynaud’s phenomenon, in which triggers such as cold, stress or vibration cause a temporary spasm of the blood vessels in the fingers and toes.
The digits go white, then blue, then red as bloodflow returns. In most cases this is not a sign of serious disease, but in some cases there could be an underlying autoimmune condition such as scleroderma or lupus, so see your GP for a check-up.
One of the main causes of poor circulation in people over 50 is peripheral arterial disease, or PAD. This is due to atherosclerosis (sometimes called hardening of the arteries). In atherosclerosis, cholesterol plaques form inside your arteries, making them narrow and stiff which reduces blood flow to the hands and feet.
Atherosclerosis is more common with age but it’s worse among people with high cholesterol levels. Smoking also makes atherosclerosis much worse because it damages the walls of your blood vessels. Diabetes and high blood pressure can also increase your risk of PAD.
If you have PAD it’s not easy to get rid of it, but there are lots of things you can do to stop it getting any worse, or prevent it in the first place. These include avoiding smoking, controlling cholesterol levels with a healthy diet or using the right medication, and making sure you get regular exercise.
If you have PAD, two hours of supervised exercise a week is recommended to start with then, once you’re used to that, a daily exercise routine. Walking is one of the best exercises you can do for your circulation. If you’re in pain, keep stopping and starting until you have been walking for at least 30 minutes. Try to do this several times a week.
Your GP could also prescribe cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins and anti-platelet drugs such as aspirin to stop blood clots forming in the damaged vessels
Q. I feel so tired all the time – what should I do about it?
Dr Trisha says: First check if you’re meeting all the healthy lifestyle guidelines such as a balanced diet, taking a daily multivitamin, doing daily exercise of some sort, getting good sleep, managing stress and your mood and avoiding excesses. If these need work then try hard to follow general health advice and reassess yourself in a few weeks.
If you still feel tired, think about what you mean by tired – are you physically tired and get breathless after a short walk? Do you look pale? Have you lost weight? Do you take medication, or are you generally just feeling exhausted?
Once you have assessed these, see your GP. Feeling tired all the time is a common symptom and there are many different causes that your GP will investigate.
- Dr Trisha writes a column every fortnight in Yours magazine. Ask Dr Trisha about your health problems by emailing email@example.com.