How leg pains could be an early sign of heart attack or stroke

QUESTION: I started a walking program a few months ago to help me lose weight, but I’ve been having problems with my legs and hips hurting during my walk, though they feel better once I stop. I thought it was just because I’m getting old, but my neighbor was telling me about a leg vein disease she has called PAD and thinks I might have something similar. What can you tell me about this?

ANSWER: The health condition your neighbor is telling you about is peripheral arterial disease, which is an under-the-radar disorder that affects approximately 8 million to 12 million Americans.

It happens when the arteries that carry blood to the legs and feet become narrowed or clogged over time with fatty deposits or plaque, causing poor circulation.

Because PAD is a systemic disease, people who have it are also much more likely to have clogged arteries in other areas of the body, such as the heart, neck and brain, which greatly increase the risk of heart attack or stroke.

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Unfortunately, PAD goes undiagnosed and untreated way too often because most people who have it experience few, if any, symptoms. The most common symptom, however, is similar to what you’re experiencing: pain and cramping in the hip, thigh or calf muscles, especially when walking or exercising, that usually disappears after resting for a few minutes.

Another reason PAD is underdiagnosed is because many people assume that aches and pains come with aging and simply live with it instead of reporting it to their doctor.

Other possible symptoms to be aware of include leg numbness or weakness, coldness or skin color changes in the lower legs and feet, or ulcers or sores on the legs or feet that don’t heal.

Like most other health conditions, the risk of developing PAD increases with age. Those most vulnerable are people older than 50 who smoke or used to smoke, have elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, are overweight, or have a family history of PAD, heart attack or stroke. Black people are twice as likely to have PAD as white people.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms or if you’re at increased risk of PAD, you need to be tested by your doctor or a vascular specialist. They will probably perform a quick and painless ankle-brachial index test, which is done by measuring your blood pressure in your ankle and your arm and comparing the two numbers. Your doctor might also do imaging tests, such as an ultrasound, a magnetic resonance angiography or a computed tomographic angiography.

With early detection, many cases of PAD can be treated with lifestyle modifications, including an improved diet, increased physical activity and smoking cessation.

If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, your doctor might also prescribe medicine to prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as control pain and other symptoms. And for severe PAD, the treatment options are angioplasty (inflating a tiny balloon in the artery to restore blood flow and then removing it), the insertion of a stent to reopen the artery or a graft bypass to reroute blood around the blockage.

To learn more about PAD, visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s website at NHLBI.NIH.gov/health-topics/peripheral-artery-disease.

Jim Miller is editor of the Savvy Senior. Send your senior questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org.