Peripheral Artery Disease (Leg Cramps)


What is peripheral artery disease of the legs?

Peripheral artery disease or peripheral vascular disease is the narrowing or blockage of arteries that causes poor circulation to your arms and legs. When you walk or exercise, your leg muscles don't get enough blood and you can get painful leg cramps or leg numbness. Peripheral artery disease is most common in the legs.

What causes peripheral artery disease?

The most common cause of such lege cramps and numbness is the buildup of plaque on the inside of arteries. Plaque is made of extra cholesterol, calcium, and other material in your blood. Over time, plaque builds up along the inner walls of the arteries, including those that supply blood to your legs. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking all contribute to plaque buildup.

If plaque builds up in your arteries, there is less room for blood to flow. Every part of your body needs blood that is rich in oxygen. But plaque buildup causes poor circulation and starves the muscles and other tissues in the lower body.

What are the symptoms?

Many people who have peripheral artery disease don't have any symptoms.

But if you do have symptoms, you may have a tight, aching, or squeezing pain in the calf, thigh, or buttock. This pain, called intermittent claudication, usually happens after you have walked a certain distance. For example, you may experience leg cramps or leg numbness after walking for a few minutes. The pain goes away if you stop walking. As the peripheral artery disease gets worse, you may have pain in your foot or toe when you aren't walking due to increased poor circulation.

How is peripheral artery disease diagnosed?

Your Cardio-Med physician will talk with you about your symptoms and past health and will do a complete physical exam. During the exam, he will check your pulse at your groin, behind your knee, on the inner ankle, and on the top of your foot. Your pulse shows the strength of blood flow. An absent or weak pulse in these spots is a sign of peripheral artery disease. Your physician may also look at the color of your foot when it is higher than the level of your heart and after exercise. The color of your foot can be a clue to whether enough blood is getting through your arteries. He will also ask if you've experienced leg cramps.

You will likely be given a test that compares the blood pressure in your legs with the blood pressure in your arms. This test is called an ankle-brachial index. (Read more about Cardio-Med's detailed blood pressure examination.) A test called an artery Doppler ultrasound may be performed to check the blood flow in your arteries. (Read about Cardio-Med's test for stroke, which uses the same technology.)

Cardio-Med now uses the new Philips EPIQ 5G Ultrasound Imaging System. EPIQ 5 is a new direction for premium ultrasound featuring an uncompromised level of clinical performance.

Blood tests to check your cholesterol and blood sugar can tell whether you may have other problems related to peripheral artery disease, such as high cholesterol and diabetes. (Read more about Cardio-Med's comprehensive metabolic panel and urinalysis for diabetes. )

How is it treated?

Treatment for peripheral artery disease relies mainly on healthy lifestyle changes and management of high blood pressure and cholesterol. You may need medicines to ease leg cramps and leg numbness and other symptoms. In some cases, you may need surgery or a procedure called angioplasty.

When you have peripheral artery disease, you have a high risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Making healthy changes can help reduce poor circulation.

Lifestyle changes

  • If you smoke, quit. It's one of the most important things you can do. If you need help, talk to your physician about programs and medicines that can help you stop.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Follow an exercise program.
  • Manage your cholesterol and blood pressure if they are high. You may need medicines to help you do this.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar in a target range.
  • Lose weight if you need to, and maintain a healthy weight.

Your physician may suggest that you attend a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program. In cardiac rehab, you will get education and support to help you make new, healthy habits.

Medicines and surgery

If lifestyle changes don't help, your physician may prescribe a medicine that may relieve the pain when you walk.

For severe peripheral artery disease, you may need a procedure called angioplasty or bypass surgery to open narrowed arteries or to reroute blood flow around them.

In rare cases, advanced peripheral artery disease can cause tissues in the leg or foot to die because they don't get enough oxygen as a result of poor blood flow. If this happens, part of the leg or foot must be removed (amputated). This is more common in people who also have diabetes.

We also offer a body scan that provides ultrasound imaging of body organs and a test for stroke to check carotid artery blood flow to the brain. This suite of tests including the complete physical exam gives your physician a complete view of your state of health.

Call (847)758-1230 today for an appointment and consultation with our physician.
Serving Chicago, IL and all of the Chicago northwest suburbs, southeastern Wisconsin and northwestern Indiana.

Adapted from eMedicineHealth