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Posted on in Heart Health

Leg Pain When You Walk? Claudication Defined, Easily Treated

In 1831, a veterinarian described a condition of lameness that hit horses after exercise defining the problem as “claudication” from the Latin word meaning “to limp.”

These days, claudication describes a similar problem that affects 10% of people over 70, as well as about 2% of people aged 37-69. Men are twice as likely as women to suffer this health issue. Claudication symptoms are described as aching, burning, weakness or “dead weight” in their legs when walking.

“The leg pain can be easily treated,” says McLeod Vascular Surgeon Dr. Christopher Cunningham, “But it could signal more serious issues, such as Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) or broader vascular issues, known as atherosclerosis (ATH-er-o-skler-oh-sis).” 

Causes 

Leg muscles cramp when they aren’t receiving enough oxygen, a condition call ischemia (uh-SKEEM-ya).  As we age, arteries stiffen from a buildup of cholesterol, calcium and other tissue, called plaque (plack). As the artery narrows, blood flow is restricted. Muscles become painful when they need, but don’t get, sufficient oxygen during exercise.

Walking is an important exercise to help prevent and improve claudication. You will at some point, have to stop and rest. Your cramps should ease in a few minutes. Then, you can resume walking.

Diagnosis

Your physician will confirm the problem by checking the pulse in your legs. A handheld ultrasound device measures and compares the blood pressure in your arms and legs. Another ultrasound test can measure the size of the leg’s blood vessels. High tech image scans can further examine blood flow in the patient’s legs.  

You may also be tested for diabetes, high blood pressure, raised cholesterol levels, thyroid and kidney function – all of which can be triggers for the leg pain.

Risk Factors

In addition to growing older – which we can’t do much about – there are risk factors that can reduce the pain and slow the “hardening of the arteries” that cause claudication:

  • Smoking speeds up the hardening of the arteries and prevents development of smaller blood vessels that can assist the blocked arteries
  • Excess Body Weight requires more blood in the legs to carry it.

Treatments

In most cases, the leg pain will not worsen over time. But the problem will not clear up by itself. Simple approaches can reduce the pain and treat its ultimate causes.

  • Walking is the simplest way to strengthen leg muscles while building other blood vessels to feed the muscles.  Start slow – short walks several times a week. If discomfort arises, stop for a few minutes.  Over time, try walking longer distances. In 3-6 months, you should be able to handle longer distances without aching.
  • Medications, such as taking an aspirin a day, can help circulation problems.
  • Angioplasty uses a balloon inserted in a small incision in the thigh to stretch arteries and increase blood flow.
  • Bypass Surgery is only used in severe cases that are not improved by other treatments. A section of blood vessel is taken from another part of the body to replace the blocked artery.

Final Thought. Very few people with claudication have a risk of losing their leg.  However, medical supervision is important to relieve the symptoms, restore a person’s quality of life and most importantly to recognize when it's progressed to limb threat.

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Sources include: McLeod Health, Society for Vascular Surgeons, National Institutes of Health, Vascular Surgical Foundation, Cambridge University Hospitals, Circulation Foundation

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