Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) is taking a toll on more than 8 million people in the U.S. alone.
Although it affects people age 40 or over, none of us is getting younger, so the sooner we pay attention, the better!
People with Peripheral Artery Disease, by its very nature, have a higher risk of developing Coronary Artery Disease and/or having a heart attack or stroke.
We’ve all heard that when it comes to addressing a cardiovascular problem, the sooner it’s diagnosed and treated, the better. The problem with that is that it’s a challenge when you have no symptoms or you think the symptoms are due to something else entirely…
So, the more you know….here’s what’s important for you.
Peripheral Artery Disease is a narrowing of the “helper arteries” that carry oxygen-rich blood to the legs, stomach, arms, and head.
It’s similar to Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) because both are caused by the buildup of sticky, fatty material on their inner walls.
THAT narrows and eventually blocks the arteries in critical regions of the body.
PAD may be the first warning sign of the bigger problem called atherosclerosis, which threatens the whole circulatory system and puts your heart and your brain itself at risk.
Naturally, it follows then that these fatty deposits also increase the risk of blood clots which can cause tissue death by blocking the blood supply.
PAD is dangerous.
- Without adequate blood flow, your vital organs, your legs, arms and feet and your brain, suffer damage.
Left untreated, the tissue can become infected or die, (what you know as gangrene). In the worst cases, it results in the need for amputation.
The Symptoms Of Peripheral Artery Disease
As I mentioned, many people with PAD never have any symptoms at all or mistake their symptoms for something else.
- But…the most common symptom of peripheral artery disease in the lower extremities is a painful muscle cramping in the hips, thighs or calves when walking, climbing stairs or exercising.
The pain of PAD often goes away when you stop exercising, but it may take a few minutes. Working muscles need more blood flow. Resting muscles can get by with less.
If there’s a blockage due to the buildup of fatty deposits, the muscles won’t get enough blood during exercise to meet their needs.
- That “crampy” pain, when caused by PAD, is the muscles’ way of warning the body that it isn’t receiving enough blood during exercise to meet the increased demand.
The most common symptoms of PAD involving the lower extremities are cramping, pain or tiredness in the leg or hip muscles while walking or climbing stairs. Listen To Your Body!
Other symptoms include:
- Foot or toe wounds that won’t heal or heal very slowly
- Gangrene, or dead tissue
- A colder temperature when you touch your lower leg or foot, especially when compared to the temperature of the other leg or to the rest of your body
- Poor nail growth on the toes
- Erectile dysfunction, especially in men with Diabetes
Understand your leg pain
Many people dismiss leg pain as a normal sign of aging. You may think it’s arthritis, sciatica or just “stiffness” from getting older. For an accurate diagnosis, consider the source of your pain.
PAD leg pain occurs in the muscles, not the joints.
Diabetics might confuse PAD pain with “neuropathy,” a common diabetes symptom that is described as a “burning” or painful discomfort of the feet or thighs.
- If you’re having any kind of pain repeatedly, talk to your physician and describe the pain as accurately as you can.
Certain risk factors can’t be controlled. These include aging, personal or family history of PAD, cardiovascular disease or stroke.
However, you can control the following important risk factors for PAD:
- You can stop smoking. Smokers may have four times the risk of PAD than nonsmokers.
- Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Having diabetes puts you at greater risk of developing PAD as well as other cardiovascular diseases.
High blood pressure (hypertension)
- You may have heard hypertension called “the silent killer” because it has no symptoms. Work with your practitioner to check and control your blood pressure.
Elevated cholesterol: You can manage your cholesterol levels.
- High cholesterol contributes to the build-up of plaque in the arteries, which can significantly cut the blood’s flow. This condition is known as atherosclerosis.
- Managing your cholesterol levels is essential to prevent or treat PAD.
- Managing your weight and participating in regular physical activity may help reduce the risk of PAD as well as other cardiovascular diseases and stroke.
You can choose more than one target to improve!
- Taking care of only one risk factor is not as effective as taking care of all those that you can control.
- Develop a heart-healthy lifestyle and cooperate with your healthcare professionals.
- Diagnosis begins with a physical exam.
- Your practitioner will ask about your symptoms
- They will check for weak pulses in the legs.
Depending on the findings during the examination, an ankle-brachial index (ABI) may be administered.
- The ankle-brachial index measures the blood pressure at the ankle compared to the blood pressure in the upper arm (the brachium).
As compared to the arm, lower blood pressure in the leg is an indication of blocked arteries due to peripheral artery disease (PAD).
The results of the ABI may call for further tests.
- Treatment for Peripheral Artery Disease focuses on reducing symptoms and preventing progression of the disease.
- In most cases, lifestyle changes, exercise and medications to ease the cramping pain or improve circulation.
- Regular physical activity is often an effective treatment for PAD symptoms.
Your doctor may recommend a program of supervised exercise training, also known as cardiac rehabilitation. You may have to begin slowly, but simple walking regimens, leg exercises and treadmill exercise programs can greatly ease symptoms.
- When PAD causes pain while walking, the exercise program takes that into account — alternating activity and rest in intervals to build up the amount of time you can walk before the pain sets in.
- Other exercises such as cycling and pain-free or low-intensity walking can also improve function.
It’s highly recommended that programs targeting specific areas are taken at a rehabilitation center and monitored.
If that isn’t possible for you, your healthcare professional may recommend a structured community or home-based program that’s best suited to your situation.
Many PAD patients have elevated cholesterol levels. A diet low in saturated and trans fat can help lower blood cholesterol, but cholesterol-lowering medication may be necessary to keep up the proper levels.
- Working with a coordinated healthcare team and making the lifestyle changes necessary to best manage diabetes may help reduce limb-related complications.
- You may be prescribed high blood pressure medications and/or cholesterol-lowering medications as well as medications to help prevent blood clots.
It’s important to take the medication as recommended by your practitioner. Not following directions will increase your risk for PAD, heart attack and stroke.
- Those with PAD should have an annual flu vaccination
- For certain patients, minimally invasive treatment or surgery may be needed.
Visit heart.org for more information on surgeries and procedural interventions for treating Peripheral Artery Disease.