When the skin on the legs appears blue, red, or purple, this is usually the result of vascular disease. The problem is due to an improper flow of blood in your body, and usually affects your legs, calves, and feet. In addition to skin discoloration in the lower legs, patients may experience sores, ulcers, and chronic leg pain.
If you are experiencing multiple symptoms at the same time, we urge you to schedule a diagnostic testing appointment with a vein and artery specialist as soon as possible, as these are all signs of vascular disease.
Discoloration of the legs can be caused by a variety of health conditions. Here are some of the more common ones and what to watch out for:
Chronic Venous Insufficiency
Chronic venous insufficiency occurs when the valves in the veins fail to close properly, allowing blood to pool. This may cause your leg to swell and your skin to turn darker. There is also venous stasis dermatitis, which causes itchy, red, or brown skin. The legs may also ache, throb, or cramp. Compression stockings and elevating your legs may help to relieve these symptoms.
The condition may also manifest as varicose veins or spider veins. In addition to affecting the appearance of your legs, spider and varicose veins can be a serious health risk. Varicose veins may appear red, blue, or bulging and lead to discoloration of the surrounding skin. Spider veins typically occur on your legs, feet, or face and are smaller than varicose veins.
Deep Vein Thrombosis
Deep vein thrombosis (also called DVT) occurs when a blood clot forms in the veins deep in the legs or other parts of the body. When the blood clot blocks blood flow, your leg may swell and may appear blue or red. The condition becomes life-threatening when a blood clot breaks free and travels to the brain, heart, or lungs. A blood thinner or clot buster can be prescribed, or a minimally invasive procedure can be performed to remove the blood clot. In some cases, a visit to the emergency room may be necessary.
Peripheral Artery Disease
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a type of arterial insufficiency where your blood does not flow as it should because of clogged arteries. PAD typically affects the legs, but it can also occur in other parts of the body. Discolored skin around the affected area is a common symptom.
You may be at higher risk of leg discoloration if you:
● Over the age of 50
● Are overweight
● Are immobile for long periods
● Have untreated varicose veins
● Have a blood clot in your leg
● Have high blood pressure, which is when the force of blood pushing against your blood vessels consistently exceeds what it should be
● Have a heart condition
● Have kidney failure
● Have had many pregnancies
● Have had surgery or significant injuries to the area
Leg discoloration is much deeper than superficial varicose veins. Changes in skin tone, color, or texture around your ankles and lower legs may indicate a vascular disease.
You should seek medical attention if you notice any of the symptoms listed below. As long as you are not experiencing any severe pain, the first step to taking care of yourself is to make an appointment with your primary care provider. If needed, they may refer you to a specialist.
Besides discoloration of the skin, other symptoms you may experience include:
● Localized swelling
● Scaly and crusty sores
● Hair loss on the shins and ankles
● Thickened skin
● Varicose or spider veins
Before beginning treatment, the first step is to determine the underlying cause of the discoloration, and an evaluation with a vascular specialist is usually a good place to start. The evaluation will include:
1) An Ultrasound Examination — A trained vascular specialist will also perform an ultrasound of the legs and perhaps even the pelvis.
2) A Physical Check — In addition to taking your pulse and examining your feet and ankles, your physician will check for swelling. If your leg discoloration is the result of vascular disease, you will then be able to receive customized treatment.
3) Prescribing the Best Route for the Patient — The next step is to improve or correct the underlying cause of your skin discoloration. In some cases, this can mean wearing compression socks, exercising, or elevating the legs. Other remedies include taking supplements and using skin creams.
4) A Minimally-Invasive Procedure or Hospital Operation — Other times, a procedure or procedures are needed to improve circulation. Most of these procedures can be performed in an outpatient clinic without putting the patient to sleep or requiring them to go to a hospital. The recovery period for these kinds of procedures is typically short. Some patients with vascular disease may need an operation in the hospital. Avoid hospital operations by seeking medical care from a vascular specialist as soon as possible.
It is possible to reverse the early signs of vascular disease's impact on the skin. Specifically, redness and dryness of the legs are easier to resolve than brownish discoloration, although even this can sometimes be improved. Use the following measures as an initial treatment.
1) Exercise — Walking regularly can help to circulate blood rather than allowing it to pool in your lower legs, causing redness.
2) Elevate Legs at Rest — By raising your legs to the level of your heart, you reduce the strain on your veins, allowing blood to flow more freely, resulting in less redness. Getting the legs higher than the heart is even better!
3) Compression Socks — You can prevent blood from pooling in the legs by using compression socks or wraps. Depending on the patient's preference and the degree of swelling, compression socks may be knee-high, thigh-high, pantyhose, or legging style. Compression socks shouldn't be worn at night or at all if they hurt. Consult your healthcare provider for more information.
4) Skincare — Hydrating the skin is important if it is dry, itchy, or scaling. Coconut oil is a great alternative to runny, water-based lotions. If you have discolored areas, wear sunscreen to prevent further pigmentation.
Treatment for vascular disease that results in skin discoloration focuses on healing wounds and preventing further damage to the skin. Treatment depends on the type of disease present.
Vein disease is usually treated by closing or removing dysfunctional veins, and in some cases, opening compressed veins to improve circulation. As blood moves more efficiently to the heart, it has less chance of pooling in the legs and staining the skin. As a result, the legs may be less red, and healing may be improved.
Additionally, oral and topical prescription medications can be prescribed to improve the appearance and texture of the skin or to treat or prevent wounds or infections.
The aim of treating arterial disease is to open blockages so that more blood and oxygen can reach the leg and foot tissues. This can improve wound healing and reverse some skin darkening or redness.
There are also prescription oral and topical medications that can help improve skin appearance and texture and to treat or prevent infection skin infections or wounds.
Rhizotomy, or radiofrequency ablation, is a minimally invasive, non-surgical procedure that uses heat to reduce or stop pain transmission. In essence, radiofrequency waves burn the nerve that is causing pain, preventing pain signals from reaching the brain.
New ablation technology called ClariVein uses mechanical destruction of the vein combined with sclerosing agents to treat bulging varicose veins and their underlying causes.
The ambulatory phlebectomy procedure is an outpatient dermatological procedure performed through a slit-like incision in the skin that removes superficial veins.
Sclerotherapy uses an injection of a chemical (sclerosant) to scar the inside of the vein caused by varicose veins. This causes the vein to close. In this procedure, the affected leg is elevated to drain blood, and a sclerosant is injected into the varicose vein.
One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease, many of which are caused by vascular problems external to the heart. Early diagnosis is crucial for effective treatment.
Skin darkening is a sign of an underlying condition that you don’t want to wait to identify and treat. When left untreated, leg discoloration can lead to more serious issues, including pain, leg ulcers, or infection. Contact our knowledgeable team today by calling one of the Georgia Vascular Institute’s locations, or by scheduling an appointment online.