Poor circulation: what causes it and what to do about it

Cold fingers, toes and noses are never pleasant, but poor circulation isn’t always to blame...

Poor circulation gets something of a bad reputation.

[Read more: Raynaud’s disease: what you need to know about the condition]

We blame it when our hands get chilly, our toes go numb and our noses get cold, but often it’s a conclusion we jump to without any medical evidence to back it up.

In this freezing winter weather, hardly a day goes by without hearing someone bemoaning their ‘poor circulation’ while rubbing their hands together over a radiator. But what are the facts? Can we really hold our circulation to account for every chill we get?


“‘Poor circulation’ is not a good term to use to describe cold fingers, toes and noses in cold weather,” says vascular consultant, Professor Mark Whiteley of The Whiteley Clinic.

In fact, he adds, “for a person with a healthy circulation, their blood vessels (arteries) will constrict in the cold to stop warm blood from travelling to the very cold areas in their body. This keeps your vital organs warm and stops you from freezing to death.”

So, if you’re stamping your feet trying to get the blood back into your toes while you wait for the bus, your body is actually doing a great job, sacrificing the comfort of your extremities for the sake of you heart and lungs.

What is poor circulation really then?

“In its correct usage, ‘poor circulation’ is when the arteries are narrowed or blocked – similar to what happens to people who smoke a lot, or who suffer from diabetes,” explains Professor Whiteley.

“This poor circulation can cause pain when walking (claudication), leg ulcers and gangrene.”

Raynaud’s phenomenon

On the less severe end of the spectrum is Raynaud’s, which the NHS considers a “common condition that affects the blood supply to certain parts of the body – usually the fingers and toes”. It’s where blood vessels spasm temporarily and block blood flow to the extremities, leaving skin blotchy (often purple and orange), or white, as if drained of blood. It means fingers become numb and difficult to use.

Up to 20% of adults worldwide suffer from Raynaud’s, including 10 million people in the UK. Fortunately, it’s treatable at home.

[Read more: Chilblains: what you need to know about this pesky winter affliction]

What’s to be done?

For those who suffer with extreme types of poor circulation, “patients need drugs, balloon dilation of their arteries, or bypass grafts”, explains Professor Whiteley.

While the NHS recommends regular exercise, reducing stress, quitting smoking, and healthy eating to combat Raynaud’s.

For those who have good circulation, but still want to have cosy extremities (and avoid frostbitten fingers), the advice is simple: invest in decent winter wear.

“If you wrap up warm enough, you will not lose body heat, and your fingers and toes will stay warm and toasty,” says Professor Whiteley. “However, if you are wearing inefficient layers that do not keep the warm in, then you will start to lose heat and once your temperature starts to drop, your body will take action to preserve heat to the core.

“If you want to stay warm, forget fashion and wear the items that insulate you most. If you are out and your fingers and toes are cold, your clothes, gloves, hat, scarf etc. aren't doing a good job.”

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