If you experience frequent cramping in your lower leg when exercising or pain when walking that subsides when the activity stops, you may be suffering from more than an issue with your limbs: you may be experiencing peripheral vascular disease. This disease, also known as peripheral arterial disease (PAD), is a narrowing of the arteries that take blood to the legs, kidneys, stomach, arms and head. According to the American Heart Association, it affects more than eight-and-a-half million Americans — and most don’t even know they have it.
“It’s easy for this disease to be mistaken for something else,” warns a Cardiologist at the Heart and Vascular Center of St. Luke’s University Health Network. “Sadly, if left untreated, it may lead to gangrene or amputation. And if you have this disease, you are at a higher risk for a heart attack or a stroke. So get checked out by your healthcare professional — don’t ignore this type of pain.”
Fortunately, a simple exam called the ankle brachial index (ABI), performed right in the office, will give your physician some of the necessary information. It looks at the blood pressure in your arms and that in your feet so that your doctor can compare the blood flow between the two; a ratio usually at around 90 percent, if there is narrowing in your lower blood vessels that rate will be slower, a cause for concern. The temperature of your lower leg or foot may also be significantly lower than other parts of your body. Other non-invasive tests may be indicated, such as an ultrasound or a computed tomography (CT) angiogram.
Your doctor will want to know about your overall health, because there are certain factors that put you at higher risk for this disease. “Smoking puts you at a much higher risk. So does having diabetes and high cholesterol,” says a St. Luke’s Cardiologist. “And high blood pressure can be both a cause and a symptom, because if circulation to your kidneys is poor, it can result in sudden high blood pressure or blood pressure that is hard to control.”
Similar to some other vascular diseases, there are steps that you can take to prevent having PAD — and the steps are similar to the ones you take to alleviate the symptoms or improve your condition if already diagnosed. a Cardiologist at the Heart and Vascular Center stresses the importance of a healthy diet.
“People have heard this so many times that I think they just don’t listen any more, but what you eat is very, very important,”a St. Luke’s Cardiologist emphasizes. “Everything goes through your digestive system and gets passed to your organs in your blood. When the foods you eat are high in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, that will build up in your blood vessels as plaque. When your blood vessels are filled with plaque, they get narrow. When they get narrow, your heart has to work harder to pump the blood through, which can result in PAD and a lot of other heart and vascular problems.”
They recommend, “Make it easy on your limbs, your heart, and your overall health by simply choosing better foods. Lean meats, fatty fishes like salmon and mackerel, whole grains, vegetables, fruit and nuts are the way to go.”
In addition to a healthy diet, the physicians at the Heart and Vascular Center say to stop smoking, maintain a healthy body weight, and get in physical exercise five days a week. “Depending on your condition, your physical conditioning may need to be supervised, or performed at a rehabilitation center. Simple regimens like walking can help ease your symptoms while you build stamina,” says a St. Luke’s Cardiologist. “If you have diabetes, you’ll want to make the lifestyle changes necessary to avoid these kinds of complications with your limbs.”
Medication may also be advised. The source of your peripheral arterial disease will be ascertained to determine treatment; for example, you may need to take medicine to lower your blood pressure, dissolve clots, or lower your cholesterol.
Take control of your health by bringing any signs of leg pain or cramping, or foot wounds that won’t heal, to the notice of your doctor. When you and your doctor have a diagnosis in hand, you can start planning the best way to improve your mobility, help your heart, and get on the road to better health.