Has this happened to you? A distinct pain or cramp strikes your legs when you walk. When you stop for a few minutes, the pain goes away. But when you start walking again, it comes back.
You might chalk it up to getting older and respond by cutting back on walking. But that would be the wrong reaction. Instead, you should see your doctor, because your pain may be claudication, which is often a symptom of peripheral arterial disease (PAD). It's a potentially serious but treatable circulation problem.
When someone develops PAD, the extremities - usually a person's legs - don't get enough blood flow to keep up with demand from the muscles. The result can be pain that develops when the demand increases, such as when walking or exercising. The arteries that supply blood to the limbs are damaged, usually by a buildup of plaque that blocks or narrows them.
Treatment restores blood flow
Treating peripheral arterial disease with angioplasty and stenting is often effective for patients who have moderate to severe narrowing or blockage in one or more blood vessels.
Angioplasty involves inserting a catheter (a small, hollow tube) with a tiny balloon on its tip into an artery. Using a type of X-ray that projects moving pictures on a screen, the catheter is guided through the blood vessel to the area that's narrowed or blocked.
When the catheter is in place, the balloon is inflated to flatten the blockage into the blood vessel wall, while at the same time stretching the artery open to increase blood flow.
Following angioplasty, there's a risk that the artery will become narrowed or blocked again at the same site. To help prevent this, a stent is usually put in place after the balloon is deflated and withdrawn. A stent is a tiny mesh tube that remains in the artery to prop it open. The artery wall grows over the stent to keep it in place.
Treating pain and reducing risk
Treatment of PAD has two major goals. One is to reduce symptoms, such as leg pain, so that physical activities can be resumed. The other is to stop the progression of atherosclerosis (buildup of plaque in arteries) to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke.
PAD patients should control their cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar, if they also have diabetes. Lifestyle changes are important, too. If you smoke, quitting is the single most effective way to reduce risk. Exercise helps condition muscles to use oxygen more efficiently, and a healthy diet can help to control other risk factors, such as cholesterol and blood pressure levels.
If you think you may have PAD, see your doctor for an evaluation.