Peripheral Artery Disease: Screening and early treatment can save your legs and your life
Frequent leg cramps, leg pain when walking and slow-to-heal sores on your feet are annoying, but did you know they can also be symptoms of a serious disease?
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) occurs when there is narrowing of the blood vessels (arteries) outside of the heart. Most frequently, PAD affects the arteries in the pelvis and legs, but it can also affect the arteries in the arms, kidneys and stomach, as well as the aorta, a major blood vessel that comes from the heart and supplies blood to the rest of the body. PAD in the legs occurs when the leg arteries become clogged with fatty deposits that can reduce blood flow to the legs and feet and, if left untreated, amputation may be necessary in severe cases.
PAD can also be a red flag that the same fatty deposit build-up is happening in blood vessels elsewhere in your body, putting you at a four to five times greater risk for having a heart attack or stroke. PAD affects 12 to 20 percent of Americans age 65 or older, yet only one-third of them have any symptoms, according to the American Heart Association. Even those who do experience PAD symptoms often fail to mention them to their doctor, so their PAD is left untreated.
Symptoms of PAD can include: leg pain when walking, foot or toe pain that disturbs sleep, a decrease in body temperature in the lower leg or foot, sores on legs or feet that are slow to heal, a change in the skin color of the legs or feet, and slower hair and toenail growth. If patients experience any of these symptoms, they should speak with their doctors immediately and ask to be screened for PAD.
“It is important for patients to discuss any peripheral artery disease symptoms they may be having with their health care provider,” says Dr. Charles A. Simonton, chief medical officer for vascular devices at Abbott, a global health care company. “People often think their chronic leg pain is due to arthritis or just part of the aging process, so their PAD goes undiagnosed. The earlier we can diagnosis PAD, the better chance we have of restoring the patient’s blood flow in their legs and avoiding more serious problems.”
One of the most common tests for PAD is called ankle-brachial index (ABI), a simple, non-invasive test that can be done in a physician's office. In a typical ABI test, the physician uses a blood pressure cuff to measure the blood pressure in both arms and ankles at rest and then again after exercise. Specific changes in the blood pressure between rest and exercise can determine if a patient has PAD. In addition, other tests may include a review of your medical history to understand issues such as family history, diet and smoking habits – all of which can contribute to your risk of having PAD.
While PAD can become a very serious condition if left untreated, it also can be successfully treated through a number of methods. Many patients are helped by simply increasing their exercise and adopting a low fat diet. Some patients may need to take blood pressure or cholesterol-lowering medications, or blood thinners. For stubborn blockages, a balloon catheter may be inserted through a small incision in an artery to the location of the blockage and inflated to open the vessel. A stent - a tiny metal tube - may also be used to hold the artery open. For the most severe cases, leg-vein bypass surgery or amputation may be necessary.
If you think you could be at risk, speak with your health care provider about getting screened for PAD.