Leg attacks: A cardiovascular risk you should know about

PAD_largeYou know about heart attacks and probably have a handle on the common symptoms (a refresher on unique signs for women). But what about a leg attack?

Chances are you’ve never heard of a leg attack, a symptom of peripheral artery disease or PAD, even though the disease affects about 8.5 million Americans every year.

Learn the common symptoms from our vascular surgeon of this lesser-known disease that attacks the legs. Early detection can reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke and save your life.

PAD causes leg pain when you walk and typically has the same cause as most heart attacks: a buildup of plaque that decreases blood flow.

But with PAD, the blockage is in the legs and the pain often is mistaken for arthritis or muscle aches. Plus, many people with PAD don’t show any signs until the disease has advanced.

While peripheral artery disease itself isn’t usually fatal, it could be a sign there are other blockages that could cause a deadly heart attack or stroke, according to Michael Go, MD, a surgeon with the Integrated Vascular Center at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“We’ve been working at getting the word out that everybody who has peripheral artery disease is at risk of a heart attack or stroke,” Dr. Go says.

Warning signs: pain while walking

Do you have leg pain while walking a short distance or up stairs? Does the pain stop when you quit walking only to resume after a few steps? It could be a sign of PAD.

With PAD, you might have pain that:

  • hurts as much as a charley horse in the calf, thigh or hips when walking
  • is so sharp you can’t walk without resting
  • returns as soon as you start walking again
  • tends to be worse when you’re walking uphill or on unpaved surfaces
  • is in your muscles, not your joints like arthritis

Why you have pain: The leg muscles are working harder and demanding more blood flow but the heart can’t pump the blood down there because of a blockage or narrowing of the arteries. The muscles hurt from the lack of blood and oxygen.

Have leg cramps at night while lying in bed? It’s probably not a leg attack but a charley horse caused by dehydration, Dr. Go explains.

“PAD is associated with exercise or movement. It doesn’t happen while you’re just sitting there or lying down, unless your case is very advanced,” he says.

Advanced symptoms: sores and wounds on feet

If the blockage in your legs goes untreated, you’ll experience pain in your toes and feet – even at rest. Eventually, you can get sores and wounds that don’t heal on your feet (gangrene).

Do you need a PAD screening?

Anyone – young or old – can get peripheral artery disease, but it’s more common starting in your 50s or 60s. The risk goes up if you’re living an unhealthy lifestyle, which might include smoking, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Treatment often is with medications or nonsurgical techniques. 

Don’t accept leg pain as a normal part of aging, Dr. Go says. Get it checked out!

Dr. Michael Go, a vascular surgeon, gives a quick guide to preventing leg attacks.