Leg Pain Could Be a Sign of Stroke or Heart Attack Risk

Peripheral artery disease affects millions, but half of them don't know they have it

A potentially dangerous condition called peripheral artery disease afflicts at least 8.5 million older Americans — but many people ignore the leg pain that accompanies it. That could be a very big mistake.

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a narrowing of the arteries to the arms, stomach, kidneys, head or legs, but most commonly the legs, the American Heart Association says. It is caused by atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque in the arteries.

The reason it’s so dangerous? PAD increases the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke. Leg pain or tiredness with walking or climbing stairs is a warning sign, but half of all Americans who have PAD don’t know they have it. Their doctors often don’t, either.

“A lot of people limit their activity for other reasons, like a hip problem, back pain or breathing difficulty, and may not push themselves hard enough to provoke symptoms of PAD,” Dr. Paul W. Wennberg, a cardiologist and vascular disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic, told The New York Times.

Smokers, as well as those with heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, are at particular risk of having PAD.

The Importance of Exercise

However, avoiding movement is the last thing you want to do if you have PAD, experts say. Wennberg recommends to his patients with the condition that they walk until it hurts, rest, then walk again, the Times writes.

Smokers, as well as those with heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, are at particular risk of having PAD, according to an article published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine. Older age also increases the risk. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 12 to 20 percent of individuals over 60 suffer from it.

Getting diagnosed and treated for the condition is vital, because that can slow or stop the disease and reduce the risk of complications like gangrene and leg amputation, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Physicians should ask older patients about symptoms of peripheral artery disease, Wennberg writes in Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association.

“Simple questions like ‘What is the most strenuous thing you do in a typical week?’ or ‘Did you have pain or need to stop coming in from the parking lot for your appointment?’” can give the doctor important information, he writes. Some patients report the symptoms after a vacation or business trip, because traveling can push people into an unusual level of activity that spurs pain.

Pay Attention to Symptoms

Check with a doctor if you have any of the following symptoms:

Note: Many people with PAD have no symptoms, according to the American Heart Association. Talk to your doctor about getting a diagnostic Ankle-Brachial Index (ABI) test if you have risk factors, such as a history of smoking, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

For the full New York Times story on peripheral artery disease, see this link.


By Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. She previously spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul.@EmilyGurnon

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