Health Beat with Dr. Alicia Arnold: Peripheral arterial disease

Do your legs feel painful after walking? Or do you feel like you can’t walk as far as you used to? Some people attribute this to just getting older, but it may be due to a common medical condition.

Meghan Kulig: Tell us a little about peripheral arterial disease.

Dr. Arnold: Just as you can have blockages in the arteries in your heart that can cause heart attacks, the same problems can affect the arteries supplying blood to limbs, such as your legs. When these blockages are severe enough, they can cause symptoms of pain with walking that improves with rest. This is known as claudication.

Meghan Kulig: How is peripheral arterial disease diagnosed?

Dr. Arnold: A physician can perform an exam and do a check of the blood pressures in your ankles and compare them to the blood pressure in your arm. This is called an ankle-brachial index. If the results are abnormal, your physician will likely order further testing with an ultrasound, CT scan, or MRI to better evaluate your arteries.

Meghan Kulig: Another frequent cause of pain in the legs is varicose veins. How can you tell which problem you have?

Dr. Arnold: Your physician can help sort that out, but there are a couple of simple ways to try to distinguish the two. Problems in the arteries reduce the amount of blood getting to the legs causing symptoms when you're exerting your muscles, like walking. The pain usually gets better with rest and having your legs lower than your heart so that it is easier for blood to flow with gravity. With varicose veins, there is difficulty returning blood back towards the heart. This can cause pain and swelling in the legs. It is usually worse with standing, but improved with leg elevation and walking since your muscles are helping pump the blood back to the heart.

Meghan Kulig: How is peripheral arterial disease treated?

Dr. Arnold: Many of the same principles in the treatment of heart disease apply. Don't smoke, exercise regularly, and keep your cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes under control. There are also medicines your physician can prescribe that can help your symptoms.

Meghan Kulig: What if these measures aren't enough?

Dr. Arnold: There are procedures similar to treatments for blocked heart arteries. There are minimally invasive treatment options such as angioplasty and stenting. If the disease is more severe, surgical options exist as well.

Meghan Kulig: Why is it important to have your peripheral arterial disease diagnosed and treated?

Dr. Arnold: From the standpoint of your legs, getting treatment can allow you to be more active and lead a healthier lifestyle. Also, progression of peripheral arterial disease can lead to permanent damage in the limbs and even amputation. A final important point is that individuals with peripheral arterial disease also have about four to five times the risk for heart attack and stroke, so that's a vital reason to be evaluated by your healthcare provider.

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