How to Spot Signs of Peripheral Arterial Disease
The health condition you are wondering about sounds like peripheral arterial disease (PAD). You should check with your primary healthcare professional to determine a correct diagnosis. This disease often stays under the radar, but affects approximately 8 to 12 million Americans. It happens when the arteries that carry blood to the legs and feet become narrowed or clogged over the years with fatty deposits or plaque, causing poor circulation. Because PAD is a systemic disease, people that have it are also much more likely to have clogged arteries in other areas of the body such as the heart, neck and brain, which greatly increase the risks of heart attacks or strokes.
Unfortunately, PAD goes undiagnosed and untreated way too often because most people that have it experience few, if any, symptoms. The most common symptom, however, is similar to what you are experiencing: pain and cramping in the hip, thigh or calf muscles, especially when walking or exercising but usually disappears after resting for a few minutes.
Another reason PAD is under-diagnosed is because many people assume that aches and pains go along with aging and simply live with it instead of reporting it to their doctor. Other possible symptoms to be aware of include leg numbness or weakness, coldness or skin color changes in the lower legs and feet or ulcers/sores on the legs or feet that do not heal.
Are You at Risk?
Like most other health conditions, the risk of developing PAD increases with age. Those most vulnerable are people over the age of 50 who smoke or used to smoke, have elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, are overweight, or have a family history of PAD, heart attack or stroke. Ethnicity may also play a role in elevating risk factors.
If you are experiencing any symptoms or if you are at increased risk of PAD, consult your doctor or a vascular specialist about getting tested. The physician will perform a quick and painless ankle-brachial index test, which is done by measuring your blood pressure in your ankle as well as your arm and comparing the two numbers. Your doctor may also do imaging tests such as ultrasound, magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) and computed tomographic (CT) angiography.
With early detection, many cases of PAD can be treated with lifestyle modifications including an improved diet, increased physical activity and smoking cessation.
If lifestyle changes are not enough, your doctor may also prescribe medicine to prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure and cholesterol and control pain and other symptoms. For severe PAD, the treatment options are angioplasty (inflating a tiny balloon in the artery to restore blood flow then removed), the insertion of a stent to reopen the artery or a graft bypass to reroute blood around the blockage.
To learn more about PAD, visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at NHLBI.NIH.gov/health-topics/peripheral-artery-disease.