Your sore feet may be warning you of heart disease

March 1, 2019 Providence Health Team


In this article: 

  • Peripheral arterial disease often presents as foot and leg pain, making it hard to recognize.

  • Foot and leg pain shouldn’t be overlooked, particularly if you fall in the risk factor categories.

  • Providence cardiologists say that atherosclerosis is very treatable when addressed promptly.

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 that 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. Risk factors for PAD include:

  • Over 60 years old
  • Smoking
  • Atherosclerosis
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol


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. 

Treatment options

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.


Find a doctor

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 physician using our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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