Every day, you start out walking that one-mile loop. But every day when you walk, your legs start to ache. So you sit down on a bench, and the pain goes away. After a while, you get up and walk home -- but by the time you reach the house, the pain is back.
You may think you have leg cramps, which is a sign of advancing age. But instead you could be suffering from peripheral vascular disease (PVD).
What is peripheral vascular disease?
Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is a common circulatory problem that involves the narrowing and hardening of the arteries that supply blood to the legs and feet. Plaque, a substance made up of fat and cholesterol, accumulates inside the walls of the arteries and restricts normal blood flow. This buildup of plaque is called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis can affect arteries anywhere in the body. When it affects the arteries of the heart, it is called coronary artery disease and can cause a heart attack. When it affects the arteries supplying the brain, it is called carotid artery disease and can lead to a stroke.
If you have PVD you are more likely to develop other forms of cardiovascular disease that can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Take this brief online quiz and see if you know the difference between ordinary cramps and a real medical problem called PVD.
Am I at risk for PVD?
PVD affects approximately 10 million Americans. Risk factors for developing the condition include:
- Being over the age of 50.
- Being overweight or obese.
- Elevated blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- A family history of premature heart attacks or strokes.
- Sedentary lifestyle.
Smoking is more likely than any of the other risk factors to cause PVD. In fact, smokers may have four times the risk of PVD than nonsmokers.
What are the symptoms of PVD?
The most common symptom of PVD is painful muscle cramping in the hips, thighs or calves when walking, climbing stairs or exercising. However, many people with the disease have mild or no symptoms.
Symptoms of severe PVD include:
- Leg pain that does not go away when you stop exercising.
- Foot or toe wounds that won't heal or heal very slowly.
- A marked decrease in the temperature of your lower leg or foot particularly compared to the other leg or to the rest of your body.
How is PVD diagnosed?
Diagnosing PVD can be done through an ankle-brachial index test which compares blood pressure levels in the ankle and arm. Angiography, a form of imaging that uses a dye injected into the blood vessels, allows the doctor to watch blood flow through the arteries as it happens. A medical history, physical exam or ultrasound also may be used to diagnose PVD.
What type of treatment is available for PVD?
People diagnosed with PVD can usually be treated with lifestyle changes, medications or a combination of both. Lifestyle changes include smoking cessation, diabetes management, blood pressure control, exercise and a healthy diet. Medications may be prescribed to lower cholesterol or blood pressure, control blood sugar (for diabetics), prevent blood clots or relieve certain symptoms. In some cases, however, an angiogram may be necessary to open vessels using a balloon catheter (a small, hollow tube).
For a few patients, lifestyle modifications alone aren't sufficient. In these cases, angioplasty or surgery may be necessary.
Angioplasty is a non-surgical procedure that can be used to dilate (widen) narrowed or blocked peripheral arteries. A thin tube called a catheter with a deflated balloon on its tip is passed into the narrowed artery segment. The balloon is then inflated, compressing the plaque and dilating the narrowed artery so that blood can flow more easily. Then the balloon is deflated and the catheter is withdrawn.
Often a stent – a cylindrical, wire mesh tube – is placed in the narrowed artery with a catheter. There the stent expands and locks open. It stays in that spot, keeping the diseased artery open.
If the narrowing involves a long portion of an artery, surgery may be necessary. A vein from another part of the body or a synthetic blood vessel is used. It's attached above and below the blocked area to detour blood around the blocked spot.
Can leg pain break your heart?
Leg pain, numbness or other symptoms should not be dismissed as normal aches and pains of aging. Early diagnosis and treatment of PVD is important to not only protect your health, but also decrease your risk of heart attack or stroke. If you suffer from leg cramps that may be caused by PVD talk to your doctor or call 281-580-0000 find a physician near you.
Quality Health Care at Houston Northwest Medical Center
At Houston Northwest Medical Center, we provide a full range of diagnostic and image-guided interventional studies of the vascular system. Our comprehensive Ed Roberson Heart Center is dedicated to the prevention, diagnosis, management and treatment of vascular disease.
The team of interventional radiologists, vascular surgeons and interventional cardiologists all work together to treat patients with PVD. Treatment will depend on symptoms, severity of the disease, and overall general health.
For a physician referral call 281-580-0000.