MANY people shrug off leg pain when they walk as a normal part of ageing.
However, it can be a sign of something much more serious, experts have warned.
Leg pain can be an early warning sign of a deadly stroke or heart attack[/caption]
This is because cramps can be a marker of peripheral artery disease (PAD), which can put heart and brain health at risk.
People with PAD feel pain because of the fatty deposits in the arteries of the leg which block blood flow to the muscles, as well as the arteries supporting the heart and brain.
This makes a person with PAD far more likely to have a heart attack or a stroke than someone without the condition.
Professor David Newby, British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiology, said: “If you get a gripping, cramping sensation in your calves when you are walking, it might be worth seeing your doctor, as that can be a marker of PAD (peripheral arterial disease).
“It’s most common in smokers and people who have diabetes.”
While doctors used to think PAD mainly affected men, research has recently revealed that the condition is just as common in women.
It affects one in every ten women over the age of 50 and one in every five over the age of 60, according to Dr Aruna Pradhan, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Pain on the move
Symptoms of PAD include cramping and pain in the calves, thighs, hips or buttocks – but only in the muscles rather than the joints.
It also feels different from the muscle soreness caused by exercise that could last for hours or days.
And unlike muscle pain from sport, the soreness occurs only during movement and stops after short periods of rest.
Dr Pradhan said: “It might happen when you are walking up a flight of stairs or up a hill, and you might find yourself frequently stopping for breaks.”
Slow to heal
Despite this, PAD can sometimes cause leg pain when you’re lying down.
And some people may experience a change in colour on the feet, slow-healing sores on the feet, coldness in one or both feet and slow growth of leg hair or toe nails.
While PAD isn’t the only reason you might experience leg pain while walking, it’s important to consider – particularly given the risk it comes with triggering a stroke or a heart attack.
Harvard Medical School have recommended going to your doctors and asking for a simple test called an ankle-brachial index, which measures the blood pressure in your ankle and then your arm.
What are the symptoms of peripheral arterial disease (PAD)?
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a common condition, in which a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries restricts blood supply to leg muscles.
It’s also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD).
Many people with PAD have no symptoms. However, some develop a painful ache in their legs when they walk, which usually disappears after a few minutes’ rest. The medical term for this is “intermittent claudication”.
The pain can range from mild to severe, and usually goes away after a few minutes when you rest your legs.
Both legs are often affected at the same time, although the pain may be worse in one leg.
Other symptoms of PAD can include:
- hair loss on your legs and feet
- numbness or weakness in the legs
- brittle, slow-growing toenails
- ulcers (open sores) on your feet and legs, which don’t heal
- changing skin colour on your legs, such as turning pale or blue
- shiny skin
- in men, erectile dysfunction
- the muscles in your legs shrinking (wasting)
The symptoms of PAD often develop slowly, over time. If your symptoms develop quickly, or get suddenly worse, it could be a sign of a serious problem requiring immediate treatment.
These readings will then match if your arteries are clear and low blood pressure in the ankle indicates you may have PAD.
Medics have recommended lifestyle changes to treat PAD, including regular exercise, avoiding smoking and eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and whole grains.
Dr Pradhan said: “One of the problems with PAD is that people are taught when they have pain to avoid it.
“So, people who start feeling pain in their legs when they walk may think they’re getting old and stop walking. That’s exactly what you don’t want to do.
“Once PAD is diagnosed and you know why you are having symptoms, doctors encourage people to do more physical activity to help keep them functional.”
Doctors may also prescribe medication to reduce the condition’s symptoms – including statins which could prevent formation of fatty deposits.
More on heart attacks
If the blood flow blockage is severe, doctors may even recommend surgery to clear the blockage or reroute the blood flow around it.
Dr Pradhan has emphasised the need to get your symptoms looked at if you’re concerned.
He added: “The longer you wait, the harder it is to treat.”
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