Tired, achy legs might signal peripheral artery disease

Age can bring on aches and pains. But you shouldn't shrug them off, especially if they affect your legs or feet.

Achy, tired, cramping, or numb legs and feet could signal peripheral artery disease (PAD), a potentially serious condition that puts you at greater risk for heart attack and stroke, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

Symptoms of the disease are most likely to appear when you exercise and may go away after a short rest. If this sounds familiar to you, see a doctor, and consider yourself fortunate. Many people who have the disease don't have any symptoms to clue them in to the danger.

What is PAD?

Also known as peripheral vascular disease, PAD happens when arteries in the legs become clogged or hardened due to a buildup of fatty material—a condition known as atherosclerosis.

PAD is a strong warning that atherosclerosis may be present in other blood vessels, such as those supplying the heart or brain. Atherosclerosis in those locations could lead to heart attack or stroke.

Are you at risk?

Many people with PAD have no symptoms, and those who do often ignore the signs, perhaps attributing leg pain to old age or arthritis, according to the AMA. That makes it all the more important to know the major risk factors for the disease.

Perhaps the No. 1 risk factor is diabetes. Nearly 30% of people with PAD have diabetes or prediabetes, according to the American College of Cardiology (ACC). In addition, the ACC and the American Diabetes Association (ADA) say your risk is greater if you:

  • Are over 40.
  • Smoke.
  • Have high blood pressure.
  • Have unhealthy cholesterol levels.
  • Have heart disease or a history of stroke. You're also at risk if you have first-degree relatives who had premature atherosclerosis.
  • Are overweight.

Detection and treatment

See your doctor if you think you may be at risk for PAD. He or she may be able to detect the disorder by comparing blood pressure readings from your leg to readings from your arm. An angiogram, ultrasound or MRI may also help find PAD.

For people who have PAD, treatment may include:

Managing risk factors. For example, you may need to control diabetes, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and not smoke.

Regular exercise. Studies have shown that exercise can be used both to treat PAD and to prevent it, the ADA says. In fact, people with PAD symptoms have found exercise to be one of the most effective medical therapies, allowing them to walk farther without pain and to improve their overall quality of life, according to the AMA.

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends walking for 30 to 60 minutes, four or more times a week. Walk until you experience PAD symptoms, rest briefly, then continue walking.

Medications. Talk to your doctor about taking aspirin or other agents to thin the blood.

Surgery. Severe cases of PAD may require surgery to open clogged blood vessels.

reviewed 10/17/2019

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This information is provided for educational purposes only. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare providers regarding medical care or treatment, as recommendations, services or resources are not a substitute for the advice or recommendation of an individual's physician or healthcare provider. Services or treatment options may not be covered under an individual's particular health plan.