Peripheral Artery Disease: Overlooked and Underdiagnosed
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a serious medical condition that affects the lives of more than 8 million Americans. Typically characterized by cramping or tiredness of the leg and hip muscles when walking or exercising, PAD can be mistaken for other common medical ailments and often goes overlooked and underdiagnosed. If left untreated, PAD can lead to difficulty walking and eventually leg amputation. It is also a precursor to a myriad of other life threatening health conditions such as blood clots, stroke and heart attack.
Symptoms of PAD occur when an individual’s limbs are no longer receiving adequate blood flow. Blood flow is typically restricted due to a condition called atherosclerosis where plaque builds up in the arterial wall. When plaque builds up in the arteries that supply blood to an individual’s lower extremities, PAD is likely to develop.
Symptoms of PAD can vary greatly. Many exhibit few signs and symptoms of the disease. However, when symptoms are present, they are often characterized by a condition called intermittent claudication. Intermittent claudication is a painful cramping sensation that affects the calf, thigh or hip muscles during activities such as walking or climbing stairs. Individuals afflicted with PAD can also experience leg numbness or weakness, a cold sensation in their lower limbs, or sores on their lower extremities that won’t heal.
The risk of developing PAD increases significantly with age. If you are over 65 and experiencing symptoms, you should make an appointment with your primary care physician. Individuals who have a history of smoking, obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure are also especially vulnerable to the development of this disease. Smokers in particular, experience a much higher prevalence and earlier onset than nonsmokers.
Fortunately, if symptoms of PAD are identified, it can be diagnosed with an ankle-brachial index (ABI), which is a simple test that compares the blood pressure of the ankle to the blood pressure of the arm. Once diagnosed, PAD can be effectively managed through a combination of heart-healthy lifestyle choices such as increasing exercise and quitting smoking, in addition to prescription medication(s).