Cold Feet Warm... Heart?
Updated: Jun 20, 2018
As one of the coldest winters in 20 years begins to draw to a close and the last of those pesky chilblains fades away, we thought we could discuss exactly how important your blood and circulation really is and why your feet and legs are critical to keep it pumping. Some of you will know what it feels like to have poor circulation with the added discomforts of chilblains during the cold months. Others could describe the pain of varicose veins or deep vein thromboses (DVT). Or you may suffer with the unsightly spider veins. Whatever your issue, understanding how your blood circulates is an essential part of looking after your feet and legs.
Veins and Arteries
There are two main types of vessels that carry blood around your body – arteries and veins. Arteries have muscular walls which, as they contract, push oxygen-rich blood around your body. The pulses that you can feel at different points on your body are the arteries contracting.
Veins, on the other hand, are elastic rather than muscular and contain valves to stop blood from flowing backwards.
Joining these two is a network of smaller vessels called arterioles, venules and capillaries being the smallest. As the blood from the arteries flows through these channels, nutrients and oxygen are deposited into the surrounding cells. Any waste products and carbon dioxide is picked up and sent through the veins back to the heart and lungs.
The Calf Pump
Being bipedal has its disadvantages when it comes to the pull of gravity on the blood. Thankfully, our anatomy is structured in such a way that all you need to do is move your limbs and the blood gets pushed, against gravity, toward your heart.
The position of your veins inside your legs means that every time your leg muscles contract, the veins are squeezed and the blood moves upward.
These occur when the backflow valves fail and blood trying to move up the leg, ends up going backwards and pooling around the valve.
People with varicose veins can be in a lot of pain; the muscles cramp when walking and at night because there is no oxygen available. And the skin, which becomes starved of oxygen and nutrients, turns itchy and brown and then begins to break into ulcers. These wounds typically take months to heal.
It is incredibly important that people with poor venous circulation do everything they can to prevent these complications.
These are the little visible veins around the ankles and feet that become more apparent usually as we age. Some people are more susceptible than others depending on the health of their veins as well as their occupation and lifestyle.
Those who sit or stand for their jobs every day such as chefs, supermarket workers and administration staff will be at a higher risk of developing spider veins. So will those that lead a sedentary life with little or no activity.
Often these little veins are an indicator of an underlying venous issue.
Prevention is the Cure
One of the easiest ways to combat swelling and pain in the legs and feet from sitting or standing too long, is to walk; get that calf pump pumping!
If you can’t manage to walk, try seated exercises such as pointing your toes at the ankle, picking objects up off the floor with your toes or writing the alphabet with your feet. Any movement which causes contraction of your leg muscles, therefore movement of the blood, is better than sitting still. Compression socks can also be helpful, as can elevating your feet above your hip.
As many of you have noticed, this winter has been one of the coldest in recent history and as a result, we have been seeing a lot of people suffering with chilblains.
Chilblains used to be very common in the days when our home and work environments weren’t as well insulated and heated as they are today. This meant our extremities – hands, feet, ears and noses – were exposed to the cold for longer.
Chilblains form when the cold part of your body is heated too quickly. They are usually small, red, swollen patches of skin, similar in size to a large mosquito bite, often itchy and painful. For those with thinner skin, they often break down into sores. Unfortunately, once you have a chilblain you just have to put up with the discomfort until it goes away which usually takes about 2 weeks.
To avoid them, the best idea is to warm any very cold extremities slowly. Plunging your feet or hands in to hot water may be tempting but is the quickest way to get a chilblain.