Peripheral artery disease and leg cramping
Doug Carlon, MD is a vascular surgeon, section chief of Endovascular Services at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center andassistant clinical professor of surgery at the University of Arizona. His office can be reached at (602) 277-7430.
Question: Lately I have cramping in my legs when walking or climbing stairs that goes away once I stop. Is this a sign I need to exercise more regularly or could it be something serious?
Answer: While I can’t be sure of the reason for your pain without assessing your individual risk factors, what you describe sounds like a condition known as claudication. A term for leg pain that occurs with exertion, claudication results from poor blood flow in the vessels of the legs brought about by peripheral artery disease (PAD).
PAD is caused by atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries outside of the heart and brain, including the legs, arms and neck. It is most common in individuals over the age of 50 who present such lifestyle and genetic risk factors as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and family history.
If you are young and do not have these risk factors, it may simply be a lack of stamina. However, if these risk factors apply, your leg pain may signal more than just being out of shape. Either way, you should be evaluated by a physician to determine what, if any, care is required.
In some ways, this leg pain is a built-in warning not to be ignored as it could indicate plaque accumulation in the heart or neck that could ultimately lead to a heart attack and stroke. Your primary care physician can help determine your risk for PAD, take steps to control your symptoms and, if appropriate, refer you to a peripheral vascular specialist.
Approximately one out of every eight people with PAD requires medical intervention, such as balloon angioplasty, stent placement and even bypass. The vast majority of patients experience relief by controlling their risk factors through medication and lifestyle adjustments such as quitting smoking, eating healthy and routine walking, the recommended exercise for PAD.
As a first step, discuss your leg pain with your primary care physician. Early detection is the best way to head off serious health complications resulting from PAD.