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Legs - (tired, aching, heavy)

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Legs - (tired, aching, heavy)


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Legs - tired, aching, heavy
Circulatory system
Most people's legs will get tired and ache at some time in their lives, usually from standing or sitting for long periods, but the discomfort soon goes once the legs are rested or moved. However, for those whose occupation requires them to be on their feet for most of the day, for example shop assistants and hairdressers, or to be sitting while they are working, for example bus, taxi and lorry drivers, the discomfort can be more severe and longer lasting. This condition is referred to as tired, aching leg syndrome.

Men and women appear to be affected equally, and the numbers affected increase with age. Half of women over the age of 45 are estimated to have tired, aching legs, and in 7 out of 10 of those who are affected, the pain is so severe that it interferes with their daily lives.
Tired, aching legs due to long periods of standing or sitting may be caused by poor circulation in the legs. When the blood is pumped around the body, it is returned to the heart through the veins. As the heart is at a higher position in the body than the legs, blood in the legs has to be pumped against gravity in order to reach the heart. The contraction of the muscles in the legs when moving around acts as a pump, squeezing the veins and pushing the blood upwards. As the blood moves further and further upwards with each contraction of the leg muscles, it is prevented from falling back down again when the muscles relax by small one-way valves in the veins.

During long periods of inactivity, for example when standing or sitting in the same position for a long time, the leg muscles do not contract sufficiently hard enough or frequently enough to force the blood upwards. As a result, blood gathers in the leg veins restricting it from draining from the tissues of the leg. This can cause a feeling of heaviness or tension in the legs, making them ache and feel tired.

If this condition is allowed to continue untreated, eventually the small valves in the veins of the legs stop working properly, leading to swollen ankles, varicose veins and possibly deep vein thrombosis.

Things, other than sitting or standing still for long periods, that can cause poor circulation in the legs and trigger leg discomfort include:
  • Being pregnant, being overweight, wearing tight clothing or crossing the legs can each restrict the blood flow in the legs
  • Excessive heat, humidity or alcohol consumption can cause the veins to enlarge and blood to pool in the legs
  • Wearing high heels or shoes with rigid soles can stop the leg muscle pump working properly
  • Smoking cigarettes and other forms of tobacco, having a high cholesterol level or high blood pressure damages the veins
  • Having parents or close relatives who have aching legs can increase the chances of getting aching legs, which may indicate a genetic link
The first symptoms to appear are uncomfortable feelings in the feet and legs towards the end of the day. The symptoms usually ease with rest. The discomfort may develop into cramp in the leg muscles, cold feet or a feeling of tension in the legs making them heavy, tired and ache. The ankles may swell, and the skin on the legs may itch or become discoloured. Cuts or grazes on the legs may be slow to heal.
There are health supplements containing natural extracts such as flavonoids which, taken regularly, may help keep leg veins healthy. Flavonoids are anti-oxidants derived from plants that act by maintaining the fluid that flows out of the capillaries into the veins at normal levels, even when standing or sitting for long periods. There are also gels that can be massaged all over the legs to stimulate circulation, to cool and soothe tired legs and release leg tension. If leg pain is a problem analgesics such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may be used.
When to see your pharmacist
If you suffer from tired, aching or heavy legs talk to your pharmacist. Your pharmacist will want to know if you sit or stand for long periods, if you have any other illnesses or are taking any medicines. If your pharmacist decides that self-treatment is safe and appropriate, the health supplements, cooling gels and analgesics described above can all be obtained and used without the need for a prescription.
When to see your doctor
If you are concerned about your leg health, or your symptoms are persistent or getting worse, you should speak to your doctor. Your doctor will examine you and your legs to make sure that you just have tired, aching legs and not some other condition that could be causing your symptoms.
Living with tired, aching, heavy legs
Some simple life-style changes can help to keep your legs, and therefore your leg vein circulation, in good condition. Try to exercise regularly as it will help strengthen your leg muscles, thereby increasing the efficiency of the leg muscle pump in returning blood to the heart. If sitting or standing for long periods tense and relax your leg muscles, rotate your feet and wiggle your toes. Keep your legs, ankles and feet moving during the day. Try not to cross your legs for long periods as this restricts blood flow in the veins. In the workplace, if your job means that you have to stand for long periods, wear comfortable shoes and support hosiery. Try to switch your body weight from one leg to another at regular intervals, rather than letting one leg take most of the strain. If overweight, try to lose weight. Eat a balanced diet, increase the amount of fruit and vegetables and cut down on junk foods and saturated fats. Drink plenty of water to maintain hydration, keep the blood volume within normal range and maintain a healthy circulation. Avoid wearing tight clothes, especially those that are tight around your waist, upper thighs and legs. Tight clothes obstruct the flow of blood back to the heart and can make leg pain worse. If you smoke, try to give up. Besides benefiting leg pain, stopping smoking is the single most effective way of improving health and reducing premature death. If your legs are causing a lot of pain, try rinsing them with a burst of cool water in the shower or bath. Stimulate circulation by 'dry brushing' with a natural bristle brush daily or gently massaging your legs. If you do get tired, aching legs, lying down with your legs resting on a cushion or pillow, raised above the level of your heart will help ease the discomfort.
Useful Tips
  • Do simple leg and foot exercises - ask a health professional for suggestions
  • Keep active and exercise regularly
  • Do not smoke - see give up smoking section
  • Lose weight
  • Eat a balanced diet - see healthier eating section
  • Drink plenty of water - about 8 glasses a day is recommended
  • Avoid crossing legs
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Wear support hosiery
  • Massage legs
  • Rinse legs with cool water