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Leg cramps can be red flag for heart disease

Published On: Oct 17 2011 01:46:32 PM CDT
Updated On: Jan 23 2014 01:51:56 PM CST
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(NewsUSA) - "When I walk, I get an aching pain -- like a charlie horse -- in my left calf," said Barbara, age 65. "I must be getting old.

"Barbara is not alone in attributing leg pain to old age, but no one should ignore leg cramps -- muscle pain that occurs while walking can herald a dangerous condition called peripheral arterial disease (P.A.D.).In P.A.D., arteries in the legs become clogged with fatty deposits, which restrict blood flow. If left untreated, P.A.D. can lead to permanent disability, amputation or death, not to mention a two- to six-fold increase in heart attack or stroke risk. P.A.D. shares a close link with heart disease and stroke. Blocked arteries in the legs can signal blocked arteries in the heart and brain, and the same conditions and behaviors that cause P.A.D. also lead to heart disease and stroke.

Nine million Americans have P.A.D. Yet, according to a recent survey conducted by the P.A.D. Coalition, only 25 percent of adults have heard of P.A.D.P.A.D. develops over many years. Patients may not experience any symptoms. If they do, the most common signs include:* Cramps, tiredness or pain in your legs, thighs or buttocks that always happens when you walk but goes away with rest.* Foot or toe pain at rest that disturbs your sleep.* Skin wounds or ulcers on your feet or toes that do not heal for eight to 12 weeks.

P.A.D. is easily diagnosed by the ankle-brachial index or A.B.I. test, which compares the blood pressure in the ankles to the blood pressure in the arms.

According to the Vascular Disease Foundation, early detection and treatment can help avoid the disease's most devastating complications. Quitting smoking, lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels, managing blood glucose in patients with diabetes and taking antiplatelet medications can help people with P.A.D. lower their risk of heart attack and stroke. A prescribed exercise program proves the most effective treatment for managing symptoms, though some patients require endovascular or surgical procedures.