If you experience leg pain or cramping in your calf or thigh while walking for an extended period of time, then you may be exhibiting early symptoms of intermittent claudication or, in other words, leg pain that occurs when you walk. This pain is the result of a decrease in blood flow to the legs, and the diminished blood flow is most often the result of atherosclerosis, the build-up of fatty deposits or plaque inside the arteries.
If you experience this type of leg pain, do not ignore it. The severity of the disease and length of time it goes untreated can make a big difference in your treatment and recovery. If you think you may have this condition, consult your doctor about seeing a vascular specialist. Atherosclerosis can occur in any of your arteries. If you are having symptoms in your legs, it is possible that the arteries in your heart or neck could also be clogging up with plaque, setting you up for a possible heart attack or stroke.
Risk Factors for Peripheral Vascular Disease
There are several conditions and habits that increase your risk for vascular disease – fortunately, many of these factors are within your control. Risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- High LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Low HDL (good) cholesterol
- Being overweight
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Being over age 50
- Being post-menopausal
- Family history of atherosclerosis
Diagnostic Testing and Seeing a Vascular Specialist
If you experience leg pain, consult your physician about doing a physical exam and reviewing your medical history. With this information, your doctor can determine if further tests are necessary. Your doctor may order noninvasive testing to review the blood flow in your leg arteries. During a test, a vascular technologist will wrap blood pressure cuffs around both arms and at two places along your leg – the upper thigh and ankle. The technologist measures the blood pressure at each location, and he or she will compared the pressure in your legs to the pressure in your arms. A decrease in blood pressure in the legs indicates a blockage in the arteries.
After the initial testing, you may have an ultrasound scan of your legs to diagnose the location and severity of the blockage. If the vascular specialist considers angioplasty or surgery as a possible treatment, your doctor may recommend an angiogram. During an angiogram, dye is placed in the artery while X-ray pictures are taken. The dye lights up your arterial system, making it easier to pinpoint the exact location and severity of your blockages.
Treatment Options for Vascular Disease
The best treatment will depend on a number of factors. In some cases, lifestyle changes are enough to slow the progress and manage the disease. Sometimes, procedures are necessary to open up clogged blood vessels. The goal of any treatment program will focus on reducing your number of risk factors and will usually include:
- Exercise program
- Reduction of fat and cholesterol in your diet
- Controlling diabetes and hypertension
- Smoking cessation; if you are a smoker, it is essential that you stop smoking
After you complete diagnostic testing, your doctor may determine that you will benefit from angioplasty or a bypass procedure to treat your poor circulation.
- Angioplasty: During this procedure, you receive an X-ray as your physician guides a catheter or hollow tube to the blocked area through the femoral artery in your leg. A tiny balloon located at the end of the catheter is inflated to widen the passageway for blood flow. Sometimes a stent (a small mesh tube) is placed inside the artery to hold it open and create a smooth surface within the artery.
- Bypass surgery: This is a way to create a new pathway through which the blood can flow. Either a vein or a synthetic graft is attached to your artery above and below the area of blockage, creating a route around the blockage and improving blood circulation to the legs and feet.
Risks and Prevention
As with all invasive procedures, there is some risk involved with angioplasty and bypass surgery. Your physician will be able to inform you of any risks specific to your case. In addition, you can change your lifestyle to reduce any unhealthy habits that contribute to your leg pain and peripheral vascular disease. If you smoke, it is very important that you stop. Also, you should remove fat and salt from your diet and start a daily exercise program. Begin to take a more proactive approach to maintaining good health.
Watch marathon runner Urbane Maust explain how our team treated his leg pain and saved his life by removing a potentially fatal blood clot.