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Could Your Leg Pain Be Peripheral Artery Disease?

Have you noticed any changes when you go out for a walk or run? Do your legs begin to cramp and ache after a few minutes of exercise, but feel better when you stop exercising? Peripheral artery disease may be the cause of your leg pain and can lead to more serious complications.

What is PAD?

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a condition that leads to the narrowing or hardening of the arteries that supply blood anywhere outside of the heart - legs, arms, brain, kidneys, and other organs. As blood vessels narrow, it is harder for blood to flow, decreasing the supply of blood and oxygen pumping out of the heart and to the rest of the body. When you exercise, your muscles require more oxygen, and therefore blood flow. However, if your body cannot supply the muscles in your legs with the necessary blood flow and oxygen, the nerves in your legs are triggered to signal a warning to the body. You will feel this as a cramping feeling in your legs, which usually stops after a few minutes of stopping the exercise, whether that be a swift or inclined walk or running. Photo credit: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute


Early PAD can easily go undiagnosed. As many as one in five Americans 65 or older are affected by PAD, with an estimated 8 million Americans diagnosed.  As PAD becomes more severe patients can experience symptoms ranging from pain and tingling in the feet toes, pain that continues after exercise stops, pain that worsens when you dangle your legs off the bed or raise them up, and skin looking dark and blue or sores that do not heal on your legs or feet. PAD can be a marker for a heart attack or stroke and should be taken seriously.

PAD is a Warning Sign

Without proper treatment, PAD can worsen over time. Because the condition that causes PAD affects blood vessels throughout your body, PAD increases the risk of a heart attack and stroke by as much as six times compared to people without PAD. As the plaque buildup continues in the arteries throughout your body, PAD increases the risk of a blood clot forming. Medication therapies or surgery can help prevent this from occurring and may reverse the effects of PAD. Contact your health care provider if you believe you may have PAD and experience these symptoms:

•    A leg or foot that becomes cool to the touch, pale, blue, or numb
•    Chest pain or shortness of breath with leg pain
•    Leg pain that does not go away, even after exercise stops
•    Legs that are red, hot, or swollen
•    New sores/ulcers
•    Signs of infection (fever, redness, feeling ill)
•    Symptoms of arteriosclerosis of the extremities

How is PAD Diagnosed?

Talk with your health care provider if you have experiencing these symptoms. Document when the pain is occurring, how often and how long it occurs. Talk to them about any changes in overall pain you feel throughout your body. Diagnosing PAD begins with a physical exam if your health care provider suspects the pain you are experiencing is associated with decreased blood flow throughout your body. One of the first indicators would be weak pulses in your legs. A screening test called the Ankle/Brachial Index (ABI) assesses circulation in the legs and risk for a heart attack. Oklahoma Heart Institute provides this painless, life-saving screening without a physician referral required. If the ABI results are abnormal, further testing including a Cardiac CT Scan may be performed.

What Causes PAD?

PAD is caused by atherosclerosis is commonly a disorder among men over the age of 50. Risk factors for atherosclerosis include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke. Researchers believe of all the risk factors for atherosclerosis, smoking is a leading risk factor, as smoking narrows further and increases the risk of a blood clot forming. Anyone who smokes, especially with these other risk factors, should quit.

For information about PAD or to schedule a Ankle/Brachial Index call Oklahoma Heart Institute at 918-592-0999.