Peripheral Vascular Disease
Rajul Patel, MD, is a cardiologist at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center.
Question: I have a recurring a pain in my calf when I walk that goes away once I stop and sit down. Is this just a sign that my legs are tired or could it be something more serious?
Answer: While I can’t be sure of the reason for your pain without seeing you, the symptom you describe is likely a condition known as claudication. Characterized by blockages in arteries of the legs, claudication is typically caused by peripheral vascular disease (PVD), a disease that affects arteries in the neck and legs.
Like blockages in the heart that can lead to heart attack, blockages in other arteries also pose serious health risks. For instance, blockages in the neck can lead to stroke while blockages in the legs, particularly among diabetic patients, reduce blood supply that may cause non-healing ulcers in the legs and feet, gangrene, etc. If severe enough, it may require amputation. It is estimated that at least 80 percent of the roughly 150,000 amputations performed annually in this country are due to PVD. The vast majority could have been prevented.
A person’s risk of developing PVD is dictated by a mix of lifestyle and genetic factors including: diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, lack of exercise and family history. PVD is most common among the elderly affecting an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people 65 and older.
There are several non-invasive tests to assess an individual’s risk and determine whether they show signs of PVD. And, advances in technology have led to several non- and minimally-invasive treatment techniques that replace traditional surgical methods. Where open surgery was once required, catheters now enable cardiologists to treat blockages using one or a combination of the following: balloons, stents and atherectomy to remove plaque. Equally as effective as surgery, these techniques produce less scarring, less pain and quicker recovery.
If left untreated, PVD can dramatically alter a person’s life. Individuals 65 and older and those with some or all of the known risk factors should be screened annually. Also, since diabetic patients may not show significant symptoms of PVD, they should have their legs examined every six to 12 months.
Like most diseases, early detection is the best way to ensure a positive outcome with peripheral vascular disease.