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Aches in Your Legs
Understanding Peripheral Arterial Disease
If you're past age 50, you may have resigned yourself to feeling a
few more aches these days. However, if you've had pain or cramping in your
legs when you're walking that goes away when you stop, don't shrug it off, it
might be an early warning signal of a serious and sometimes-silent disorder called
peripheral arterial disease (PAD).
Just like arteries in the heart, those in the lower legs can be become clogged with fatty
deposits. Imagine your arteries are a complex highway system. Fatty deposits, also known as
plaque, are the traffic jams that limit blood flow. Clogged arteries - blood-flow traffic
jams - anywhere in the body increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Between 8 million and 12 million people over age 50 have PAD. Many never notice any
symptoms. PAD symptoms include heaviness in your legs, awakening at night with pain in
your lower legs, and pain or cramping in the legs when you're walking
that seems to lessen with rest. A lot of people who have these symptoms don't tell their
doctors. They simply accept the discomfort as part of growing older. Another sign of PAD
people may notice but dismiss is a change in the color of their feet.
Whether painful or silent, undiagnosed PAD is too dangerous to ignore. It is very
important that people recognize the signs and alert their doctor if they notice
Those most at risk for PAD are people over age 50, especially African Americans.
Smokers and former smokers, and people who have diabetes, high cholesterol or high
blood pressure are also at risk. Those who have had vascular disease, heart attack
or stroke, or have a family history of those disorders should also be on the lookout
If you're over 50 or otherwise at risk, ask your doctor about being tested for PAD.
A simple test called the ankle brachial index (ABI) can identify the problem. The ABI
compares the blood pressure in your arm with blood pressure in your legs. Reduced blood
flow in the legs could signal artery disease.
Once PAD is detected, your doctor will offer several treatments to help clear out the blockages
before they lead to more serious problems. Your doctor may tell you to get more exercise,
if you don't have an active lifestyle. Recent results from a study
of people with PAD showed that daily physical activity improves survival rates. Your doctor
may also recommend changes to your diet and other efforts to lower high cholesterol and high
blood pressure. Medications and surgery are also treatment options that can improve blood flow
in the vessels. What's most important is to take
those aches seriously and seek help from your doctor.
Questions to Ask Your Health Care Provider
- Am I at risk for PAD?
- How can I lower my risk?
- Which screening tests or exams are right for me?
- What is my blood sugar level? If it's too high or if I have diabetes,
what should I do about it?
- What is my blood pressure? Do I need to do anything about it?
- What are my cholesterol numbers? Do I need to do anything about them?
- I have PAD, what steps should I take to treat it?
- Will PAD increase my risk for other conditions?
Arterial Related to arteries, the series of tubes that
carry blood from the heart throughout the body.
Vascular Disease: A disease of the vascular system, the system of
vessels that circulate blood throughout the body.
Adapted by Editorial Staff, November 2006
Last update, July 2008