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June 16 2017

Leg pain, other signs may indicate vascular problems that need attention from a physician

Christopher B. Davies, MD

As people get older, “it’s nothing” can be a common response to physical discomfort and changes in the body. Cramps in the legs and hips, cold feet and hands, hair loss and other issues are normal signs of aging, right?

Not necessarily. In fact, someone with these or other symptoms may have a heart and vascular condition that requires medical attention.

A blockage or weakness in the vascular system can be the cause of leg or abdominal pain, vision problems, changes in the skin, a weak pulse or even temporary loss of function from a mini “TIA” stroke that can be erroneously discounted as “nothing.”

It’s time to see a doctor when one or more of these symptoms occur. There may be an underlying problem, and it could possibly be serious.

Of course, severe pain; shortness of breath; pressure in the chest; faintness or dizziness; vision problems; or sudden numbness, discomfort or weakness in the arm or other area require an immediate call to 911.

Vascular issues reduce life expectancy

As a vascular surgeon, I see patients who are referred by their physicians for care related to peripheral artery disease, carotid artery disease, aneurysm and other conditions. My patients are more likely to lead the lives they envision when their health issues are diagnosed and treated early.

People who have certain risk factors for heart and vascular disease are at greater risk of dying at a younger age. For those under age 75 with arterial disease, the death rate is 10 percent over five years. For people age 75 and older who have arterial disease and diabetes, the death rate jumps to 50 percent over five years. Also, about 90 percent of people who have arterial disease have some form of heart disease too — which further reduces life expectancy.

Diabetes, smoking and high blood pressure lead to injury of the arteries and heart disease and also make existing cardiac problems worse. The arteries become weak or narrow, making it difficult for the body to circulate blood and oxygen. Bits of plaque can also break off and obstruct blood flow in the arteries, causing a stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack).

An abdominal aortic aneurysm is an abnormal enlargement and weakening of the main artery in the abdomen. When it is larger than 5 centimeters, there is an escalated risk for rupture and leakage — a life-threatening emergency. If the aneurysm is identified and repaired before it ruptures, however, the patient’s life expectancy returns to status quo.

Medical screening provides an overview

Circulatory problems can bring a loss of function, exercise and muscle strength before a medical emergency occurs. Vascular screening is a good way to learn your overall risk for heart and vascular disease so you can better manage your health.

People who are older than 55, have diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a history of smoking, or a family history of aneurysm or heart and vascular disease may decide to schedule an optional vascular screening. The three-part, one-hour screening is painless and allows you and your physician to better plan your health care.

During a vascular screening, a health care professional uses ultrasound to check the carotid arteries in the neck and the aorta in the abdomen, as well as blood pressure cuffs to check blood circulation in the peripheral arteries of the arms and legs. The tests can indicate whether there is narrowing or a blockage in the arteries or weakening of the aortic walls.

Depending on the results, your physician may conduct a physical examination and other tests, and help you with a prevention and treatment plan. In certain cases, a physician will prescribe medication.

It may be necessary for your physician to refer you to a specialist such as a vascular surgeon, to see whether a medical procedure may be required.

Use results to improve your health

When it comes to your health, “nothing” is not an option. You can live a longer, better life by maintaining good habits and taking action to prevent, learn about and treat heart and vascular issues.

Engaging in regular exercise, eating healthy foods, quitting smoking, having regular medical checkups, reducing stress and managing cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes are essential to heart and vascular disease prevention and control.

Christopher B. Davies, MD, performs surgery at ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital and ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital. He is board certified in general surgery and vascular surgery. For more information about vascular screening, please visit ProHealthCare.org/VascularScreening.

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For more than a century, ProHealth Care has been the health care leader in Waukesha County and surrounding areas, providing outstanding care across a full spectrum of services. The people of ProHealth Care strive to continuously improve the health and well-being of the community by combining skill, compassion and innovation. The ProHealth family includes ProHealth Waukesha Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, ProHealth Rehabilitation Hospital of Wisconsin, ProHealth Medical Group, the UW Cancer Center at ProHealth Care, Moreland Surgery Center, ProHealth AngelsGrace Hospice, ProHealth Home Care, ProHealth West Wood Health & Fitness Center and ProHealth Regency Senior Communities. Learn more at ProHealthCare.org.