You go for a long walk and your legs and feet start to hurt. Is it fatigue? Is it a muscle strain? Or is it a sign of something more serious?
It could be a sign of atherosclerosis — hardening of the arteries. And that could mean serious health problems, including heart attack or stroke.
Such a condition is called peripheral arterial disease, or PAD. It occurs when plaque forms in the arteries the carry blood from the heart to other parts of the body, including the legs, arms and torso.
While pain in your feet or legs generally does not signal the onset of heart problems, many people aren’t aware of the possibility. Typically, the pain goes away when a person rests, returning only when he or she walks again. PAD may be marked by leg cramps — but cramps also may be a sign of dehydration or other relatively benign conditions. Other signs may include hair loss in the painful area, numbness, a weakened or absent pulse or skin discoloration.
Further, not everyone with PAD shows symptoms. Health experts say as many as 40 percent of those with PAD show no signs of the condition.
But it’s a potentially serious — even fatal — condition. Untreated, it may lead to a heart attack, amputation, kidney problems, restricted mobility or stroke.
The good news
While it can be challenging to recognize that leg or foot pain is related to the condition of the arteries, the good news is that it’s relatively easy for a health care provider to diagnose peripheral arterial disease.
There is a range of non-invasive options for checking whether the arteries in your feet or legs have narrowed and present a health risk. The choices include an angiogram, a test known as the ankle-brachial index, which employs a blood-pressure cuff, a treadmill test and magnetic resonance imaging.
If you show signs of atherosclerosis, here’s more good news: In many cases, it may be treated simply by making lifestyle changes. This means avoiding smoking, reducing the consumption of alcohol, eating a healthier diet and getting more exercise. More aggressive treatments may include medication, angioplasty or vascular surgery. But all are common, high-success-rate procedures.
More about peripheral artery disease
If you’d like to learn more, visit the Providence health library's page on PAD.
You may also wish to see the fact sheets and resources provided by the American Heart Association and the Society for Vascular Surgery. Both discuss risk factors that contribute to peripheral artery disease and the most at-risk populations. (Generally, people over 60 are most at risk.)
Also, take a look at the fact sheet assembled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that 8.5 million people in the United States have PAD.
If you or someone you care about shows symptoms of peripheral heart disease, please see a health care provider, who can diagnose the condition and make a referral to a heart specialist, if necessary.
Providence has heart health specialists throughout its network. You can find a Providence provider near you in our online directory, or visit:
California: Providence Saint John’s Health Center; Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center Torrance, Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center; St. Joseph Hospital Heart and Vascular Center; St. Jude Medical Center; St. Mary Medical Center - Heart and Vascular Center; Heart Institute at St. Joseph Hospital - Humboldt
Montana: International Heart Institute
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.