Leg pain can be more than just an irritation or lifestyle disruption. It can be a sign of something more serious, like peripheral artery disease.
Peripheral artery disease, sometimes called simply “PAD,” is a condition where there is build-up of plaque in the arteries supplying blood to the legs, causing pain, weakness and numbness. Pain develops on exertion when leg muscles don’t get enough blood, which causes pain, often in the calf but also in the hips or thighs. The pain usually goes away after a few minutes of rest. If the arteries get completely blocked, you can also develop pain at rest. Other signs of PAD may include a cold leg or foot, sores that won’t heal or hair loss on the feet and legs, among others.
“A lot of people want to get out there and be physically fit and active or to do their day-to-day activities. They are unable to do so because of the pain in their legs,” said Dr. Surbhi Chamaria, interventional cardiologist at Mercy Clinic Cardiology in Fort Smith.
People who smoke or have diabetes are at greatest risk of developing PAD, she added. Other risk factors include obesity, age, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and those with a family history of PAD, heart disease or stroke.
“Most of the time, patients who have underlying blockages in their heart have a high predisposition for developing blockages in their legs,” Dr. Chamaria said. “We basically call it angina of the legs. Just like when you walk and exert yourself and you have pain in your chest, when you walk and you exert your legs and you have pain or achiness or cramping, that could be a sign of poor blood flow in your legs.”
Pain when walking can disrupt a person’s lifestyle, but that’s not the only reason for concern.
“Why are we so worried about it? Because if you can develop ulcers in your leg and if we do not restore blood flow, then you can lose your leg,” Dr. Chamaria said.
Lifestyle changes including a healthy diet, exercise and not smoking can help someone reduce the risk for PAD. Patients who have already developed blockages would first be treated with aspirin and cholesterol-lowering medication.
Those with PAD symptoms are urged to address them with their primary care physician or cardiologist who may recommend testing.
“We would measure pressures in your legs that would tell us that there’s a possibility of a blockage or not,” Dr. Chamaria said. “If the symptoms are not lifestyle-limiting, then we recommend vascular rehabilitation, which helps to improve blood flow by creating natural bypass channels.”
If a patient still has symptoms after these therapies, an aortogram may be in order. The aortogram involves injecting dyes to look for blockages in the legs. Blockages can be fixed with medicated balloons, stents or bypass surgery.
Dr. Chamaria has seen many patients return to their normal lifestyles after undergoing treatment for PAD. One patient in particular had blockages in both legs, which limited her ability to perform daily errands or enjoy a walk.
“After we fixed both of her legs, she’s pretty much had a new lease on life,” Dr. Chamaria said. “She’s able to do anything she wants that the pain was preventing her from doing.”
Dr. Chamaria added that patients have returned for follow-up ultrasounds that have shown normal results.
“These patients are back to being able to enjoy life because they are not having pain in their legs anymore,” she said.
Mercy Clinic Cardiology is at 7001 Rogers Ave. in Fort Smith. Phone: 479-314-4650