Medically Reviewed by Eva M. Rzucidlo, MD
It’s not just men who suffer from this vascular disease. Women can have Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) as well. Yet, their awareness is very low. McLeod Vascular Specialist Eva Rzucidlo, MD, explains this painful disease and its myths.
Here’s a summary of Dr. Rzucidlo’s comments:
PAD is a disease of the blockages of your arteries, specifically the arteries of your legs. Most people are well aware of blockages of the arteries of the heart. And a lot of people are aware of blockages to the carotid arteries on your neck that can lead to stroke. But very few people are aware of Peripheral Arterial Disease, which can be a debilitating and chronic problem.
Peripheral Arterial Disease is mainly blockages in the legs. And that leads to – for most people – pain in their legs when they walk. In about 30% of people, there are absolutely no symptoms but there are still blockages. The reason you get pains in your legs when you walk is that the blockages don’t allow enough oxygen to reach your muscles, which leads to a cramp that makes you stop walking. When you rest, your muscles require less oxygen; the cramps go away and sometimes you can start walking a little farther. But most of the time, the pain comes back when you start walking again.
It was once thought that Peripheral Arterial Disease – just as with coronary artery disease – only occurred in men. However, we know now that women have the same amount of risk for PAD and coronary artery disease as men.
The risks of arterial disease increase with age. So, as we get older the chance of an arterial blockage increases. Other risk factors include diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure and trouble with high cholesterol.
As women go into menopause, their risk factors increase. No one understands why that happens. Some people believe it’s the hormonal changes that increase the risk of arterial disease and blockages during that time.
Awareness of PAD is very low among women. A study indicated only 1 in 3 women understood the symptoms and risk factors of PAD. The lack of awareness increases among some specific groups. African-American and Hispanic women have a relatively higher risk of PAD because of diabetes, poorly controlled cholesterol and obesity. For that reason, we not only have to increase awareness among women overall, but also among various ethnicities.
Not only is there a lack of awareness of PAD in women, but also only about 50% of women with PAD actually had symptoms. So, most women with PAD have blockages in their arteries, but when they walk there is no pain.
The only way to make the diagnosis is to have your primary care physician do a vascular physical examination. They will check your pulses and compare the blood pressure in your arm to the pressure in your leg. This is extremely important, because with PAD there can be other associated diseases lurking, such as coronary artery disease. Your risk of having a heart attack increases by 50% if you have PAD.