Your leg hurts when you walk to the store. So you drive, and your leg feels fine. Your hip aches when you use the stairs. So you take the elevator. No problem, right? Maybe, maybe not.
PAD: A KILLER WALKING PROBLEM
Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
You could have peripheral artery disease, or PAD, a narrowing of the peripheral arteries—usually in the legs (but can also occur in the stomach, arms, or hips)—due to a buildup of arterial plaque (fats, cholesterol, etc.).
The most common symptom of PAD is an ache or pain in your leg when you walk (even short distances) or climb stairs. The discomfort stops when you rest. Unfortunately, many people attribute this symptom to arthritis, simply part of the aging process, or a feature of some other ailment, such as diabetes. If the doctor doesn’t hear about the problem, it often remains undiagnosed and untreated.
Who has PAD?
More than eight million older Americans suffer from PAD, though half of them don’t know they have it. In addition, over than half of those who have PAD also have coronary or cerebral artery disease. Failure to diagnose and treat blocked arteries elsewhere in the body can result in serious or fatal problems if they affect the heart or brain. Untreated extremities can also lead to gangrene and amputation.
Factors that increase your risk of getting PAD
1. Smoking (very high risk).
2. Diabetes (very high risk).
3. High blood pressure or high cholesterol.
4. Aging. The average age at which people develop PAD is 70 (earlier if they smoke and/or have diabetes).
Note: Given the same risk factors, African-Americans are more likely than Caucasians to develop PAD.
If you are over 50 and have one or more of the risk factors for PAD, you should consider asking your doctor to do the ABI test—a quick and simple diagnostic tool that can reveal the likelihood of PAD—even if you have not yet noticed any symptoms.
In most cases, treatment focuses on reducing symptoms and preventing further progression of the disease through medication and, most importantly, a supervised exercise program. Reportedly, the best treatment is walking up to the point of pain, then resting until the pain subsides, then walking again. You repeat this pattern of walking and resting until you’ve walked to 20 to 30 minutes (not counting rest periods) every day.
Forming new, collateral blood vessels
Through constant repetition of the walk-rest-walk pattern of exercise, collateral blood vessels begin to form in your legs, and compensate for the blockages in your main arteries. In this way, the disease not only stops progressing, it can actually diminish over time.
For more information:
• heart.org - American Heart Association article about Peripheral Artery Disease
• well.blogs.nytimes.com - NY Times article, April 11, 2016, about Peripheral Artery Disease
• heart.org - Symptoms and diagnosis
• mayoclinic.org - ABI test explained
• heart.org - Prevention and treatment of PAD