Mohamed Omer, M.D.
Like coronary arteries, peripheral arteries can become diseased, causing pain or numbness in your feet, calves, thighs or buttocks.
The body has two types of artery systems: coronary, which relates to the heart, and peripheral, which relates to arteries carrying oxygenated blood to the arms, legs and brain. Just like coronary arteries, peripheral arteries can become diseased.
This condition, called peripheral artery disease, narrows arteries and reduces blood flow due to a buildup of fatty deposits on the artery walls. This reduced blood flow can cause claudication, which is muscle pain and cramping with activity, that usually disappears after a few minutes of rest.
If this sounds familiar, take a few minutes to learn more about peripheral artery disease.
Who's at risk
People who smoke or have diabetes at any age are at the greatest risk for this condition. Other risk factors include:
- Obesity (body mass index over 30)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Increasing age, especially 65 and older
- Family history of peripheral artery disease, heart disease or stroke
What to do if you experience symptoms
In addition to cramping in your legs (claudication), other symptoms of peripheral artery disease include:
- Sores on the toes, feet or leg that don't heal
- Coldness of the lower leg or foot
- Change in the color of your leg or arm
- Weakening pulse in the foot
- Hair loss
- Aching or cramping in the arms when knitting, writing or performing other manual tasks
- Erectile disfunction in men
If arteries in your brain are affected, symptoms include dizziness, weakness in the arms and legs, and loss of consciousness.
If you experience any of these symptoms, make an appointment with a cardiologist, who will conduct a physical exam and health history. This includes finding a pulse in the affected arm or leg and comparing it with the other limb.
Your cardiologist has a wide range of tools to help you return to the activities you love. Depending on the degree of symptoms, such as the ability to walk a few blocks with only mild pain, your cardiologist may prescribe medications, including aspirin, statins or blood thinners. They also may discuss modifying your risk factors by quitting smoking; controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes; and increasing activity.
With more significant symptoms, such as not being able to tolerate pain when walking, a cardiologist typically orders a CT scan with contrast, ultrasound or angiogram to discover the location and degree of the blockage.
To relieve the blockage, your cardiologist will conduct an arterial angioplasty. In this procedure, a tiny balloon is inserted into the artery and expanded, pushing the blockage into the arterial wall. At the same time, the balloon can leave behind a stent, which acts as a support for keeping the artery open. The balloon itself may contain a drug that helps do the same thing.
To break up a blockage, your cardiologist also may inject a clot-dissolving drug into the artery where a clot is.
An untreated blockage can progress, completely interrupting the flow of blood to the affected limb. This loss of blood supply leads to severe pain at rest, ulcers, gangrene and eventually amputation.
Prevention is the best treatment
Even if you fall into a risk category, you can take action to prevent or stop the progression of peripheral artery disease. The best way is to adopt a healthy lifestyle.
- Don't smoke, or quit if you do.
- Keep your blood sugar under control if you have diabetes.
- Exercise regularly, aiming for 30 to 45 minutes several times a week.
- Lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- "Eat the rainbow" with a plentiful array of colorful fruits and vegetables, and maintain a healthy weight.
- Avoid certain over-the-counter cold remedies that contain pseudoephedrine. These medications, which include Advil Cold and Sinus and Aleve-D Sinus and Cold, constrict your blood vessels and can increase your symptoms.