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Many diseases and disorders can have a negative effect on your circulatory system, including diabetes. Impaired circulation and nerve damage (peripheral neuropathy) are two common complications of uncontrolled diabetes that usually affect the lower extremities most severely.
Either one of these complications — and often, a combination of both — can lead to myriad worrisome leg and foot problems, ranging from reduced sensation and skin changes to leg swelling and the development of open, slow-healing skin wounds called ulcers.
Here, our seasoned team of board-certified experts at Vascular Vein Centers discusses how diabetes can lead to lower leg, ankle, and foot ulcers, and explains what you can do to lower your risk of developing this serious complication.
Comprised of your heart and a vast network of blood vessels large and small, your circulatory system has the vital, endless job of supplying all your body cells, tissues, and organs with the blood, oxygen, and nutrients they need to function and stay healthy.
Diabetes can impair your circulatory system in two ways. First, chronically high blood sugar (glucose) levels can damage the lining of your small blood vessels (capillaries).
Second, it can cause fatty deposits to form inside the larger vessels (veins and arteries) in your legs and feet, making them narrower, harder, and less conducive to efficient blood flow. Known as lower-extremity peripheral artery disease (PAD), this serious circulatory condition affects at least one in three people with diabetes.
Diabetes can lead to the formation of lower-extremity ulcer sores through two main pathways:
About 15% of people with diabetes develop neurotrophic ulcers at some point in their lives. These open foot sores are caused by a combination of diabetes-inflicted lower-extremity nerve damage, impaired circulation, and biomechanical pressure.
When lower-extremity nerve damage leads to reduced sensation and inability to perceive foot pain or areas of increased pressure, you become more vulnerable to the kind of skin trauma and tissue breakdown that can readily lead to the formation of an open wound.
A complication of chronic venous insufficiency and poor lower-extremity circulation, venous ulcers account for nearly 80% of all lower extremity ulcerations. These sores occur when increased vascular pressure causes fluid buildup that prevents blood, nutrients, and oxygen from reaching nearby skin tissues, leaving them prone to damage and wound formation.
Most venous ulcers appear on the lower leg or ankle. Often accompanied by vein bleeding, they can be quite slow to heal and have a high rate of recurrence.
Lower-extremity ulcers may be a common diabetes complication, but that doesn’t mean they’re a foregone conclusion. You can do a lot to minimize nerve damage, promote optimal circulation, and prevent the emergence of these serious, slow-healing wounds:
This is one of the most important things you can do to protect against lower extremity ulcers. Taking diabetes medications as directed helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels, minimizing the blood vessel damage that can occur when blood glucose levels remain high.
Keeping up with annual physical exams helps you stay on top of important aspects of your cardiovascular health, including your blood pressure and blood lipid levels (cholesterol and triglycerides). These “heart health” numbers matter, and keeping them under control can help you avoid complications like lower-extremity ulcers.
Excess body weight places increased stress on your circulatory system that can exacerbate existing vascular damage. Losing just 5-10% of your body weight can tangibly ease this extra cardiovascular strain.
When it comes to supporting optimal circulation, activity and movement frequency are more important than duration. If you’re relatively sedentary most days, work on taking frequent breaks from your chair — after 30 minutes of sitting or inactivity, aim to get on your feet and move around for at least five minutes.
If, on the other hand, you’re frequently on your feet, wearing diabetic compression stockings can promote improved circulation through your lower extremities.
In addition to moving more often throughout the day, you should also aim to get at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise most days of the week. A brisk walk is a great activity for people of all fitness levels and abilities; you can go for one long walk or break it up into multiple shorter walking sessions.
Healthy dietary and lifestyle habits are also integral for controlling diabetes, supporting your circulatory system, and reducing your risk of getting a leg or foot ulcer. This means establishing heart-healthy eating patterns that emphasize whole foods and limit high-fat, sugary, or overly processed foods. It also means quitting cigarettes if you’re a smoker.
Above all, learn to recognize the signs of poor circulation, and inspect your legs and feet often to watch out for vein disease indicators like skin changes, swelling, worsening varicose veins, or the start of an open wound.
If you spot any of these warning signs, call or click online to schedule a visit at your nearest Vascular Vein Centers office right away. We have six Central Florida locations in Orlando, Waterford Lakes of East Orlando, Kissimmee, Davenport/Haines City, Lake Mary, and The Villages, Florida.