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Aching Legs? This Health Problem Could Be Why

Illustration of painful legs with the words "Aching legs? This could be why."

When you’re over 50, it can be easy to dismiss chronic leg cramping or pain as a normal part of aging. Maybe it’s just a little arthritis, right?

But what if it’s something more serious, like peripheral artery disease (PAD)?

Between 1 in 10 men and women ages 70 to 79 have PAD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Peripheral artery disease can be a warning sign that you have a buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries throughout your body. This can lead to heart disease. 

Paul J. Foley, III, MD, a vascular surgeon at Penn Medicine, explains why PAD can cause aching legs and what to do about it:

What’s the link between peripheral artery disease and coronary artery disease?

Dr. Foley: It’s an interesting phenomenon. Peripheral artery disease oftentimes goes hand-in-hand with coronary artery disease. Plaque deposits in the arteries of the legs—which leads to peripheral artery disease—happens in a similar way as what happens with coronary artery disease. It’s just in a different territory of the body.

People may have symptoms related to their coronary artery disease that might manifest as chest pain or a heart attack, whereas the symptoms of peripheral artery disease may be more vague. So, people might not put two and two together that those diseases are related.

If the symptoms are vague, what should people look for?

Dr. Foley: Peripheral artery disease can present with a wide spectrum of symptoms.

Those range from pain after walking certain distances to the more severe problem, where people can present with pain at rest in their legs or in their feet.

Or they can develop open wounds on their feet or on their toes that don’t heal, because they don’t have enough blood flow to that part of the body.

How can you tell if aching legs are from peripheral artery disease, rather than a symptom of natural aging or some other condition?

Dr. Foley: The best way for patients to sort this out is to be evaluated by a physician. There are risk factors with peripheral artery disease, such as:

  • Age
  • Whether they smoke
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol

We also take into consideration other things as well, like whether they have diabetes.

So, if a primary care doctor or a vascular surgeon identifies a patient as being at a high risk for peripheral artery disease, there are certain non-invasive tests that we can perform to confirm whether they have it.

Why is it so important to get peripheral artery disease treated?

Dr. Foley: The medical management of peripheral artery disease involves optimizing your risk factors, and that would be:

  • Encouraging people to stop smoking
  • Getting blood pressure under control
  • Aggressively lowering cholesterol
  • Actively treating diabetes by making sure that a patient’s blood glucose is under tight control

Also, we encourage activity and having people walk regularly when someone has PAD. Optimizing these risk factors are important on a number of levels, not only just to treat peripheral artery disease, but because this treatment goes hand-in-hand with treating other medical problems, such as coronary artery disease. So, that can actually be helpful for improving overall cardiovascular health in our patients.

What, if anything, should someone do if they don’t have symptoms of peripheral artery disease, but they do have some of the risk factors known to cause it?

Dr. Foley: They should understand what those risks are and have them appropriately managed with their primary care doctor.

For example, if you smoke, you should stop. If you have diabetes, it’s important to control your blood sugar.

This is important for a whole host of reasons and preventing a person from getting peripheral artery disease is one of them.

If your aching legs have you wondering about PAD, come see if you’re at risk.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.

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