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What Causes Leg Pain While Walking?


Cecil Vaughn III, MD, is a certified vascular surgeon at Banner Estrella Medical Center. 

Question: I often experience serious leg pain when walking a short distance. Sometimes it goes away if I keep walking, but usually I have to sit for a while before it goes away and I can start walking again. A friend of mine with similar symptoms needed some kind of vascular surgery. Does this kind of pain typically mean surgery?

Answer: The symptoms you are describing sound very similar to what vascular surgeons call claudication, or tightness or pain in the calf, thigh or buttock during exertion such as walking. Claudication is an early symptom of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), which is an ongoing condition caused when your muscles don’t get enough blood flow because of a blockage or blockages in the arteries.

Tightening of the muscles during walking or other exertion is just one symptom of PAD, and typically an early symptom. Other symptoms include decreased leg strength and function, poor balance when standing, cold or numb feet or toes, even muscle pain when at rest.

Your leg pain, however, may not necessarily require surgery. The common cause of PAD is a buildup of excess cholesterol, calcium and other substances (such as plaque) on the inside of the arteries—in your case, the arteries that feed the legs.

Using one or more of several non-invasive tests, such as a Doppler ultrasound test, your primary care provider can provide a good idea of what is going on within your muscles and arteries and might recommend a simple change in lifestyle.

Smoking, a high-fat diet, and lack of exercise are often leading causes for PAD. By quitting smoking and changing your diet, you might see a dramatic difference in the amount of activity you can endure without pain. Your physician might also recommend that you continue walking or increase aerobic exercise, stopping to rest when in pain, and then continuing again for as long as possible to give yourself a good workout.

If your primary care physician determines that further evaluation is needed, he or she will likely recommend that you visit a vascular surgeon. Your vascular surgeon may recommend lifestyle changes or provide you with options that are minimally-invasive, such as catheter-based surgeries.

Catheter surgeries require the physician to insert a small, thin tube through a blood vessel in the groin and guide diagnostic and treatment procedures to the affected artery through the tube. However, if it is found that your arteries are too clogged or if there is a danger of a serious clot, your vascular surgeon may recommend major bypass surgery, which redirects the blood to your limbs through a healthy transplanted blood vessel.

It is very important that you visit your physician regarding the pain. PAD increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. If you are already walking for exercise, it is best to do so when you are healthy.

Page Last Modified: 09/03/2015
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