Medically reviewed by: Luke Maj, MD
Over-exercising can exhaust your muscles to the point where your legs feel like they’re made of lead. But what if your legs feel heavy and weak all the time? Heaviness in the legs isn’t just an annoyance. It may be a symptom of a chronic medical condition involving poor circulation in the legs. A common culprit is chronic venous insufficiency (CVI).
Chronic venous insufficiency vs. peripheral arterial disease
CVI develops when one-way valves in the leg veins, which are supposed to keep blood traveling back to the heart, don’t work properly. When these valves are weakened or damaged, they allow blood to pool in the legs. That pooled blood explains why the legs feel heavy and weak, and possibly, achy.
CVI isn’t life threatening, but it’s best caught early, when lifestyle changes may be all you need to manage the symptoms. Later on, if you develop varicose veins or venous ulcers, you may need medical treatment. Symptoms of CVI include:
- Swelling in the legs and ankles, especially after you stand for a long time
- Achy or restless legs
- A tingling sensation in the legs
- A tight feeling in your calves and muscle cramping
- Tight, irritated, dry skin that may itch
If you have symptoms of CVI, see a vein specialist sooner rather than later. He or she can diagnose CVI and offer treatment if necessary.
Tired legs are also a symptom of peripheral artery disease (PAD), which is more serious than CVI and can lead to loss of toes or amputation. PAD occurs when narrowed arteries in the legs reduce blood flow. The narrowing is usually the result of plaque buildup. Symptoms of PAD include:
- Leg weakness
- Leg pain or cramping that gets worse with exercise and better with rest
- A weak pulse or lack of pulse in the feet
- Coldness or numbness in the lower leg or foot
- Smooth, shiny skin
- Loss of hair on the legs
- Leg or foot sores that don’t heal
If you have any of these symptoms, make an appointment at The Vein Center to be checked for PAD or CVI.
How to improve blood circulation in legs
Improving the blood circulation in your legs can go a long way toward easing the symptoms of early CVI.
Elevate your legs
Sit yourself down in a chair or on the couch with your legs propped on pillows to elevate them above the level of your heart. Whenever possible, do this for 30 minutes several times a day to ease pressure on the valves in the leg veins.
Flex your feet
If you watch TV at night, rest your feet on the couch or an ottoman and do “foot pump” (plantar flexion) exercises: Flex your feet up and down, pointing your toes toward you and then away from you. This contracts the calf muscles, sending blood out of the legs to the heart.
Add some exercise
Exercise improves blood flow in the leg veins. When you walk, for example, your calf muscles squeeze the leg veins with every step, helping them return blood to the heart. Even short walks can help.
Lose weight if you need to
Carrying extra weight stresses the veins and damages the valves.
Wear compression garments
Compression socks and stockings can help reduce leg pain and swelling and slow the progression of CVI. These come in several strengths, so ask your doctor what strength you need, or come to The Vein Center to get fitted.
If compression garments don’t help enough or you find them uncomfortable, your doctor may suggest inflatable compression sleeves. You wear them on your lower legs, and they intermittently squeeze the legs to improve blood flow.
Medical CVI treatment
If lifestyle changes don’t help or you have a more advanced case of CVI, your doctor may recommend an in-office procedure to collapse or seal off the faulty leg veins. This causes the body to reroute the blood through healthier veins.
Procedures include injecting the veins with an irritant solution (sclerotherapy), injecting them with a glue-like adhesive (VenaSeal) and destroying them with heat created by a laser fiber (endogenous laser treatment) or radio waves (radiofrequency ablation).
All of these procedures are minimally invasive, and recovery time is short. Depending on the type of procedure you have, you may be able to resume your normal activities the minute you leave your doctor’s office.
If you’re experiencing leg heaviness or other symptoms that could indicate a leg vein issue, schedule an appointment with the Water’s Edge Dermatology Vein Center today.
Written by: Jessica Brown, a health and science writer/editor based in Nanuet, New York. She has written for Prevention magazine, jnj.com, BCRF.org, and many other outlets.