If Your Legs Feel Like This, Get Your Heart Checked

Heart problems can show up where you least expect them.

Your heart circulates blood throughout your entire body, meaning cardiac trouble can manifest anywhere—even in your legs. Experts say one sensation is of particular concern, because it's commonly associated with several conditions that affect the veins and arteries. Read on to find out what heart health problems could show up in your lower extremities, what feeling to watch out for, and what to do if you notice it.

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If your legs feel heavy, it could be due to peripheral arterial disease.

Female legs in bed, closeup. Woman body and skin care, tired legs after working day or fitness workout

If you find that your legs feel persistently heavy, it may be time for a checkup with a cardiologist. That's because experts warn that heavy legs could be a sign of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a chronic condition in which fatty deposits build up inside the arteries. This process is known as atherosclerosis. In addition to a feeling of heaviness in the legs, reduced blood flow resulting from PAD can cause pain, swelling, cramping, and reduced mobility. Some people also experience color changes in the legs, sores that won't heal, or a weakened pulse in the extremities.

Having PAD is associated with several heart health risks. In particular, the Mayo Clinic warns that individuals who suffer from PAD are more likely to develop stroke or heart attack than those who do not. That's because the same fatty deposits that build up in the peripheral arteries supply blood to the brain and the heart.

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Heavy legs could also be the result of chronic venous insufficiency.

Doctor examining man's legs

According to Medical News Today, experiencing a feeling of heaviness in the legs can also be a sign of a condition known as chronic venous insufficiency (CVI). The Cleveland Clinic explains that CVI occurs when the venous walls or valves in the leg veins no longer work effectively, causing blood to leak downward and pool in the veins, rather than returning to the heart.

Chronic venous insufficiency commonly occurs as the result of a blood clot, and is often seen in patients with deep vein thrombosis. Experts warn that when CVI is present, the risk of death increases. "Chronic venous insufficiency is highly prevalent in the population and is associated with the presence of cardiovascular risk factors and disease," states a 2021 study published in the European Heart Journal.

Varicose veins can also cause heaviness in the legs.

Woman with varicose veins

Varicose veins are another common culprit behind that heavy feeling in your legs. While many experts contend that varicose veins are not directly indicative of poor heart health, experts from Harvard Health Publishing warn that they may be associated with a higher risk of developing a blood clot in the deeper veins of the legs. This condition is known as deep-vein thrombosis (DVT), and it can lead to serious complications, such as pulmonary embolism (PE).

"It's a good reminder for people with varicose veins to talk to their health care provider about their overall risk for vascular disease," Gregory Piazza, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School shared via Harvard Health. While most people with varicose veins will not go on to develop DVT,  it's important to speak with your doctor about how to recognize the condition's warning signs, in case they occur.

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A walking program can help improve all three conditions.

Senior woman walking in public park
Courtney Hale / iStock

Patients with all three cardiovascular conditions stand to benefit from a structured or supervised walking program. Such programs can help you lose weight, improve circulation, and reduce your discomfort.

"The more you walk, the more conditioned your legs will become," Brett Carroll, MD, Director of Vascular Medicine in the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Instructor at Harvard Medical School said via the Beth Israel site. "Multiple studies have shown that enrollment in a structured walking program is more beneficial than walking at home, but that may not be feasible for all patients," he says. "For those that cannot enroll in a dedicated program, I recommend [beginning] with a half-hour walk several times a week. Then, gradually increase the time or distance at subsequent weeks. Over time, pain should start to improve, allowing you to walk farther and longer. As walking becomes easier, gradually increase your time by five-minute intervals."ok

Maintaining a healthy diet and refraining from tobacco use can also improve your circulation and prevent further damage to your veins and arteries. Your doctor may also recommend medication, and in more severe cases, may even suggest surgical intervention to address your particular symptoms. Speak with your primary physician or cardiologist to discuss the full range of possible treatment options available to you.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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