4 Ways Your Legs Are Telling You That Your Heart's In Trouble


Most of us may not immediately connect leg problems with heart health. While we may be aware that health conditions like diabetes can cause issues with the feet, calves, and thighs, certain symptoms in our lower extremities can also signify serious heart trouble. Read on to find out which signs to watch for for in your legs, what they could mean, and when to get your heart checked.

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Swelling in your feet and lower legs

The medical term for swelling is edema, and it can occur anywhere in your body for a number of reasons. But if you have swelling in your feet and lower legs, it might mean your heart isn't circulating blood properly, there's a vein blockage in your leg, or that you're suffering from congestive heart failure (CHF).

"CHF is a chronic condition where the heart does not pump blood as well as it should," says Edo Paz, MD, a board-certified cardiologist with K Health. "One of the classic findings of CHF is swelling of the legs, often associated with other symptoms like shortness of breath." Paz adds that swollen legs may also be caused by deep vein thrombosis (DVT)—a condition in which clots form in the blood vessels that drain blood from the legs.

Another possible cause of swelling could be venous insufficiency, a chronic condition in which blood doesn't properly drain from the legs. Jennifer Lewey, MD, MPH and volunteer expert for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women Movement, explains, "With venous insufficiency, swelling is usually worse at the end of the day and improves with elevating the legs or wearing compression socks. It's important that people with leg swelling are also evaluated for congestive heart failure, which is when the heart muscle becomes weak or stiff and therefore cannot pump blood as effectively."

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Painful cramping

Don't shrug it off if you experience painful cramps in your calves, thighs, and feet. It could be a sign of peripheral artery disease (PAD), a serious condition involving narrowing blood vessels and poor circulation to the legs. PAD results from cholesterol and plaque build-up on the walls of arteries, and can increase your risk of a heart attack. Furthermore, PAD that progresses to total loss of circulation in the legs can potentially lead to gangrene and require amputation.

"PAD is a chronic condition where the blood vessels that carry blood to your organs and limbs become blocked, resulting in decreased blood flow," explains Paz. "One of the classic symptoms of PAD is pain or cramping in the leg muscles with walking that improves with rest. Other PAD symptoms may include sores on the legs, poor hair growth, or changes in skin color."

Painful lumps in your toes
Natalia Garidueva/Shutterstock

Hard, painful lumps on your toes are called Osler's nodes, and may indicate infectious endocarditis—inflammation of your heart's chambers and blood vessels. Endocarditis results from a bacterial infection that spreads through your bloodstream and attaches itself to the weak parts of the heart, causing potentially life-threatening damage to heart valves.

"Osler's nodes can appear on the fingers and toes of those with endocarditis," explains board-certified dermatologist Geeta Yadav,MD. "They're often small and painful, with discomfort that's felt before the bump is visible." She says these uncomfortable lumps are "caused by blood vessel inflammation that leads to a bacterial infection, which causes further inflammation."

Osler's nodes can last anywhere from a few hours to several days, and often go away on their own. Regardless, if you develop these bumps on your toes, consult your doctor to determine whether antibiotics or surgery are required to get rid of the infection. A dermatologist can perform a skin biopsy to determine the cause of the bumps, and tell you whether a consultation with a cardiologist is necessary.

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Discoloration on the soles of your feet

Brownish or red discoloration that resembles bruising on the soles of your feet could be a sign of Janeway lesions, another telltale sign of a bacterial infection in the heart's chambers or blood vessels.

"Janeway lesions aren't painful, but may take some time to heal," explains Yadav. "The discoloration is caused by a septic embolism, a bacterial infection that has blocked a blood vessel. [The discoloration] can be a sign of endocarditis." Janeway lesions tend to clear up on their own within a few weeks, but if you think you have them, it's a good idea to get them checked out by a doctor to determine whether antibiotics or other medical treatment are called for.

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