Heart and Vascular

Claudi-what? Leg cramps, claudication and PAD

runner stretching

If you have leg cramps when you walk or exercise, it makes sense to think that’s just what happens when you move. After all, even athletes suffer from leg cramps.

But if you have atherosclerosis (a buildup of plaque inside the arteries) and smoke or have certain other health problems, your cramps could be a symptom of a bigger issue that needs to be discussed with your doctor.

“Leg cramps and limping in people with atherosclerosis who also smoke or have other risk factors could be claudication,” says Carlos Torres-Medina, M.D., a vascular specialist with Riverside Vascular Specialists. “It’s something that shouldn’t be ignored.”

What claudication is – and why it matters

Claudication is pain or cramping that occurs because your muscles can’t get enough blood flow and oxygen when you move. The pain usually happens in the hip, buttocks or leg.

Though a few things can cause claudication, Dr. Torres-Medina says the most common reason is peripheral artery disease.

PAD is a narrowing of the peripheral arteries, which send blood from the heart to the legs, arms, stomach and head. When these arteries become blocked – usually because of atherosclerosis – claudication can occur.

“PAD is a serious condition that can cause coronary artery disease, heart attack or stroke,” Dr. Torres-Medina says. “And without treatment, it can also lead to gangrene and limb loss.”

Assessing your risk for peripheral artery disease and claudication

Dr. Torres-Medina says if you have leg cramps or pain when you walk and any of the following risk factors apply to you, you could have peripheral artery disease.

Risk factors for PAD include:

  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Advanced age
  • Family history of atherosclerosis or PAD

“PAD can go undiagnosed because people think their pain and other symptoms are caused by something else,” Dr. Torres-Medina explains. “But leg cramping and pain with these risk factors should be evaluated by your doctor.”

Treatment for PAD and claudication

Because claudication is technically a symptom of PAD, treating your leg cramps requires treating the causes of PAD.

Treatment may involve medications to manage your risk factors. Your doctor may also prescribe a medicine to reduce your leg cramps and pain.

If you smoke, your doctor will help you begin a smoking cessation program. Regular exercise will also be recommended to improve your vascular health and help you manage your weight.

If PAD leads to significant artery damage, surgery may be required. The artery may be widened through a minimally invasive procedure called angioplasty or replaced with a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body.

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