If you’ve ever had a muscle cramp, you know it can be painful. Now imagine your hips, thighs or calves cramping whenever you walk or exercise. Leg pain is a common symptom of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a serious condition that occurs when fatty buildup in the arteries blocks circulation to the legs and feet. Yet the vast majority of people with PAD don’t know they have it.
Knowing the symptoms
The classic PAD symptom of leg pain occurs with exercise and goes away with rest. Patients may also have sores on their feet that heal slowly. A leg or foot may constantly feel cold because of poor circulation.
“Unfortunately, PAD is an under- diagnosed disease,” says Antonis Pratsos, MD, an interventional cardiologist at the Lankenau Heart Institute at Bryn Mawr Hospital. “Up to 50 percent of people with PAD don’t have symptoms. Many who do attribute them to something else, like arthritis. Also, because PAD tends to occur in older people, who often have other health problems, doctors might overlook it.”
“Untreated PAD can lead to complications such as gangrene and amputation,” adds Amid Khan, MD, an interventional cardiologist at the Lankenau Heart Institute at Lankenau Medical Center. “People with PAD also have a five times greater risk for heart attack and a two- to three-times greater risk for stroke.”
Top treatment options
Doctors at the Lankenau Heart Institute are experts at diagnosing and treating PAD.
“When found early, PAD often can be managed with a supervised exercise program, medication, and lifestyle changes such as lowering high blood pressure and eating a healthier diet,” says Vincent DiGiovanni, DO, vascular surgeon at Lankenau Medical Center and Riddle Hospital.
For severe disease, surgical treatment may include:
- Opening the clogged artery with balloon angioplasty and implanting stents to keep the blood vessel open
- Using a catheter to insert special devices into the artery to sand, shave, freeze, scrape away, or vacuum out plaque
- Performing bypass grafting surgery—using a blood vessel from another part of the body to enable blood to flow around the blockage
You can take steps today to lower your risk for PAD.
“Getting regular exercise is important,” Dr. Pratsos says. “Make sure to control diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And if you smoke—quit.”
Should you be screened for PAD?
To diagnose peripheral arterial disease (PAD), doctors perform a physical exam and a simple test that compares the blood pressure in your feet with the blood pressure in your arms to see how well the blood is flowing. Talk with your doctor about screening if you:
- Are younger than 50, have diabetes and have one additional PAD risk factor, such as smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol
- Are 50 to 65 years of age with a history of smoking or diabetes
- Are older than 65
- Have pain in your legs with exertion or when resting
- Have known coronary, carotid, or renal artery disease