Pain and discomfort in the legs or calf muscles can be a sign of arterial blockage and identifies patients at increased potential risk for heart attack or stroke. A condition called atherosclerosis occurs when plaque builds up inside of a person’s arteries, and it is the main cause of peripheral artery disease (PAD).
Early diagnosis of PAD and treatment may help prevent heart attack or stroke.
What is peripheral artery disease?
PAD is caused by atherosclerosis, cholesterol deposits in the arteries, which results in narrowing of the artery. This narrowing or blockage prevents the flow of blood much like a blockage in a pipe. When the blood, which carries oxygen to vital organs and muscles, is not allowed to flow freely, organs and muscles can be damaged.
In the legs, this results in cramping or pain in the muscles of the lower leg causing a person to need to stop activity and rest allowing the muscles to recover. In the heart and the brain, these blockages can result in a heart attack or stroke. If an individual has blockages in one artery, they have a very good chance of having blockages in all of their arteries.
What are the symptoms?
Leg pain or cramping while walking, discoloration of the toes or feet, and sores or ulcers on the feet and toes can be signs of PAD. Symptoms can be subtle and at times confusing. People often attribute the symptoms to “getting old” or arthritis. Mild cases can be a sign that problems exist in other arteries, too. If you’re experiencing leg pain, numbness, or cramping, don’t just assume it’s a normal part of aging, and see a doctor to be sure.
Who is at risk?
As we age, the risk of having PAD unfortunately increases. In fact, 30 percent of patients over the age of 70 will have PAD. Additionally, 30 percent of people between the ages of 50-69 who smoke or have diabetes will have PAD. People with a history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol are also at increased risk of PAD.
How is peripheral artery disease diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will check for pulses in the legs and may conduct a painless exam that evaluates blood pressure in your legs to see how well your blood is flowing. Blood tests to measure cholesterol and check for diabetes may also be conducted or ultrasound to identify blocked or narrowed arteries.
What treatments are available?
Lifestyle changes, cholesterol or blood pressure medications, and procedures to restore blood flow can help relieve PAD symptoms. Without treatment, serious tissue damage, such as sores or gangrene, may occur from lack of blood flow to the limbs. In worst cases, amputation may be necessary.
WVU Medicine vascular surgeons and interventional radiologists can open blocked arteries using the latest techniques of minimally invasive balloon angioplasty, stent placement, and atherectomy (a procedure to actually remove the blockage). These procedures are performed on an outpatient basis, require no incision, and patients can resume normal activities within 24 hours. At WVU Medicine, we also continue to offer conventional bypass surgery to prevent amputation if needed.
How can peripheral artery disease be prevented?
Quit smoking if you’re a smoker. Manage your blood sugar (if you have diabetes), blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Eat a low-fat, heart-healthy diet, and exercise regularly (walk 45-60 minutes per day five days per week). See your doctor if you think you might be at risk for PAD or you are experiencing possible symptoms.
To schedule a consultation with Dr. Marone, call 855-WVU-CARE.
WVU Medicine unites the doctors of West Virginia University with the hospitals and health professionals of the West Virginia University Health System. Together, they are a national leader in patient safety and quality and are unified and driven to provide the most advanced healthcare possible. For more information, visit wvumedicine.org.