Leg pain may be due to a muscle cramp or injury, but it could be caused by a more serious issue, such as poor blood flow in the arteries or a blood clot from sitting, standing, or lying down for long periods of time.
Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is a common cause of leg pain that mostly affects people older than age 50. Smokers and people with diabetes, obesity, or a family history of coronary artery disease are especially susceptible to PVD.
“PVD occurs when there is a narrowing of the blood vessels outside of the heart,” explains Chaitanya Shah, M.D., cardiologist on the medical staff at Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center Hospital. “Plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries that supply blood to the arms and legs, causing arteries to narrow or become blocked. This can reduce or stop blood flow, usually to the legs, causing them to hurt or feel numb.”
Approximately half of those with the disease have mild or no symptoms. One of the first signs of PVD can be painful cramping or fatigue in the legs and buttocks that occurs during activity, but stops during rest. The condition also can cause leg numbness or weakness, cold legs or feet, skin color changes in the arms or legs, toe or foot sores that don’t heal quickly, hair loss on feet and legs, and burning or achy feet and toes when resting or lying down. If left untreated, PVD may increase the risk for heart attack or stroke. In advanced stages, blood flow to a leg or foot can be severely blocked, causing tissue death that may result in amputation.
Diagnosing PVD can be done through an ankle-brachial index test which compares blood pressure levels in the ankle and arm. Angiography, a form of imaging that uses a dye injected into the blood vessels, allows the doctor to watch blood flow through the arteries as it happens. A medical history, physical exam or ultrasound also may be used to diagnose PVD.
People diagnosed with PVD can usually be treated with lifestyle changes, medications or a combination of both. Lifestyle changes include smoking cessation, diabetes management, blood pressure control, exercise and a healthy diet. Medications may be prescribed to lower cholesterol or blood pressure, control blood sugar (for diabetics), prevent blood clots or relieve certain symptoms. In some cases, however, surgery may be necessary to open vessels using a balloon catheter (a small, hollow tube). Doctors may bypass the blocked vessel using either a graft or directly inject a clot-dissolving drug into the artery. In some cases, a stent (a mesh tube) is inserted to keep the vessel open.
Leg pain, numbness or other symptoms should not be dismissed as normal aches and pains of aging. Early diagnosis and treatment of PVD is critical to not only protect your health, but also decrease your risk of heart attack or stroke. To find out more about PVD, call the Leg Pain Program at Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center Hospital at 888-No Leg Pain (888-665-3472) today.