Leg pain: A potential sign of peripheral artery disease

by Edward Woo, MD, Director, MedStar Vascular Program
July 17, 2017

A little leg pain or soreness with exercise usually is normal. But severe pain, especially pain that appears when you’re only walking a short distance, may be a sign of a condition called peripheral artery disease. This condition, also known as peripheral vascular disease, can make even simple actions like walking across the room a challenge. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, about 8.5 million Americans have peripheral artery disease, including 12 to 20 percent of people older than 60.

Peripheral artery disease doesn’t have to slow you down. Our diagnostic tools and treatment options let us identify and address the causes of your leg pain to get you back on your feet.

The warning signs of peripheral artery disease

Peripheral artery disease involves the narrowing or blockage of blood vessels. The main cause of the disease is a process called atherosclerosis, in which fatty deposits build up in the blood vessels. Peripheral artery disease can occur in any of the body’s blood vessels, but it’s more common in the legs than the arms.

The classic and most common symptom of peripheral artery disease is leg pain. This may appear as pain in a specific area of the leg, such as in the calf or thigh—anywhere from the buttock and hip down to the foot. Weakness and leg cramps often go along with the pain.

You may especially notice these problems when you walk, though they can appear while resting as well. Everyone’s experience is different. I’ve had patients who could walk for a mile or so before they had to rest, while others experienced intense leg pain and cramps just walking to the mailbox. The pain, weakness and cramping are signs of poor circulation in the legs. Resting can improve circulation temporarily and relieve these symptoms.

Other common peripheral artery disease symptoms can include:

  • Changes in the color or temperature of the legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the legs
  • Toenails that become thick or opaque (unable to be seen through)

It’s possible for people with peripheral artery disease to develop ulcers in the toes or feet. This is because the narrowed blood vessels in the legs restrict blood flow to the feet, which makes it harder for the body to heal cuts, sores and other minor injuries.

As peripheral artery disease progresses, the symptoms get worse. Without treatment, peripheral artery disease can lead to serious consequences, including gangrene or even amputation of a leg. Peripheral artery disease also can increase your risk for having a heart attack or stroke without proper care.

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Related reading: Saving limbs and improving lives: The Center for Limb Salvage

What to do if you have these symptoms

One of the big problems with peripheral artery disease is that people often don’t get help for it. They think it’s just a part of getting older, or maybe it’s their arthritis acting up. People with diabetes can mistake the pain of peripheral artery disease with diabetic neuropathy, a burning or painful feeling in the legs.

Don’t ignore these symptoms. Request an appointment with one of our doctors if you have leg pain while walking.

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How we treat peripheral artery disease

If we catch peripheral artery disease early enough, it’s often possible to treat it through changes in your lifestyle. This can include creating a plan for healthy eating and exercise, both of which can improve poor circulation and slow blockages from forming in the arteries.

One major lifestyle factor we recommend is to quit smoking if you smoke. We offer smoking cessation services through our Pulmonary Services team if you need help to quit smoking.

These lifestyle changes are important. But they may not be enough to treat advanced cases of peripheral artery disease. In these cases, we may have to take action to restore the blood flow to the legs. We usually can do this through endovascular surgery, which involves minimally invasive procedures.

We treat peripheral artery disease with the following procedures:

  • Angioplasty: We insert a thin, flexible tube called a catheter and thread it to the blocked artery. Then we inflate a special balloon inside the artery that pushes the blockage aside and restores proper blood flow. We also may implant a stent, a device to help keep the artery open, during this procedure.
  • Atherectomy: Similar to an angioplasty, this also involves using a catheter. We use catheters with special cutting tools to cut blockages out of arteries. Wealso may implant a stent during this procedure.
  • Bypass graft: If we can’t remove a blockage, we may be able to go around it. A bypass graft involves using either a blood vessel from elsewhere in your body or a synthetic vessel to go around, or bypass, the blocked artery.

Related reading: Debilitating Leg Pain Gone After Minimally Invasive Peripheral Vascular Surgery

Leg pain isn’t just a part of getting older. It can be a sign of serious, potentially life-threatening problems. But with the right diagnosis and treatment, leg pain can be something you look back on—not something you just have to live with.

Category: Healthy Living     Tags: calf painDr. Edward WooDr. Wooleg crampsleg painperipheral artery diseasepoor circulationthigh pain