If you’re over the age of 50 and experience leg pain when you walk or climb stairs, don’t ignore it. Studies show that one in five adults over 55 have Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD), a common circulation problem that can significantly affect your quality of life and long-term health.
“Many people with PVD dismiss these symptoms as a normal part of aging,” said Clinical Cardiologist Elias A. Iliadis, M.D., Medical Director of Noninvasive Vascular Intervention at the Cooper Heart Institute. “Tell your doctor if you’re feeling pain in your legs and discuss whether you should be tested for PVD. Left undiagnosed and untreated, PVD puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, and other serious, health complications.”
The most common symptoms of PVD are cramping, pain, or a tiredness or heavy feeling in the legs while walking or climbing stairs. Typically, the pain goes away with rest and returns when you’re active again.
PVD is a narrowing or blockage of arteries that decreases blood flow to the legs. The most common cause is the buildup of plaque on the inside of arteries. Plaque is made of extra cholesterol, calcium and other material in your blood. Over time, the plaque builds up along the inner walls of the arteries and prevents the blood from flowing freely to the muscles and other tissues in your legs.
This restricted blood flow is what causes the pain in your legs when you walk or climb stairs. During physical activity, your muscles need increased blood flow. If your arteries are narrowed or blocked, you’re legs aren’t getting the extra blood they need to fuel the exertion. When you’re at rest, the muscles need less blood flow, so the pain goes away.
“Given the nature of these kinds of activity-related symptoms, it’s easy to understand how people in their 50’s or 60’s might just attribute their discomfort to ‘mid-life aches and pains.’ But that’s a mistake. Making the diagnosis of PVD requires a physician’s exam and simple, noninvasive screening tests to determine if it’s PVD and evaluate it’s severity,” Dr. Iliadis said.
The Cooper Heart Institute offers expert physicians and simple, noninvasive tests to diagnose and treat PVD. The screening begins with a physical examination to check for weak pulses in the legs and includes an ankle-brachial index (ABI) test. The ABI is a painless exam that compares the blood pressure in your feet to the blood pressure in your arms to see how well your blood is flowing. If an ABI reveals an abnormal ratio, other diagnostic testing may be recommended.
“As vascular specialists, we perform thorough physical exams and simple tests, such as the ABI or pulse volume recordings, to help define the contribution of vascular disease to leg pain. At Cooper, all patients diagnosed with PVD are treated with medical therapy first, and, happily, most feel better,” Dr. Iliadis said.