Published on March 09, 2022

Pain in leg.

Leg pain and cramping may be signs of peripheral artery disease

Peripheral artery disease, or PAD, is a circulation disorder caused by narrowing of the arteries in the feet and legs. It is associated with leg numbness, weakness or pain during activity and can cause significant disability.

When PAD is present, cardiovascular disease may be affecting the entire body, including the heart, brain or other major organs. It is also a major risk factor for lower extremity amputation.

People with PAD are six times more likely to experience a heart attack or stroke than others. Early identification of PAD can reduce the risk of a harmful or fatal cardiovascular event.

PAD can be detrimental to quality of life. Impaired circulation in your legs and feet can cause discomfort and mobility problems, and severe PAD may lead to death.

Early diagnosis and treatment of PAD helps prevent disability, can slow or stop disease progression, and can help you maintain your quality of life. It also lowers the risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

PAD is commonly caused by atherosclerosis – hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels due to plaque buildup that obstructs blood flow and can cause clots. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other substances found in the blood.

Several factors increase the risk for developing PAD. Diabetes and smoking are the strongest risk factors. Other risks include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease and a personal or family history of stroke, heart attack or vascular disease. Obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and age also increase the chances of developing PAD.

The signs and symptoms of PAD may be mistaken for aging, and some patients experience no symptoms, making early identification of the disease difficult. The most common symptom is pain or cramping in the feet, calves, thighs or buttocks that occurs with activity. Pain usually subsides with rest.

Signs of more advanced disease include:

  • Cramping pain that does not go away with rest.
  • A noticeable decrease in the temperature of your foot or lower leg compared with the rest of your body.
  • Toe or foot wounds that won’t heal or heal very slowly.
  • Thin, shiny skin on your legs or feet.
  • The absence of hair on the legs.
  • Poor toenail growth.
  • Bluish or pale feet or toes.
  • Infection.

If you experience any of these signs or symptoms and have a PAD risk factor, ask your health care provider to evaluate you for vascular disease. ProHealth Care offers a $99 vascular screening and your provider may recommend it as a part of your preventive care plan.

During a vascular assessment, your provider will ask you about pain, sores and wounds, and examine your legs, feet and ankles. It may be helpful to have a blood pressure test called an ankle-brachial index to evaluate the circulation in your legs. The test is non-invasive, inexpensive and very reliable. You also may be asked to walk on a treadmill and have your blood pressure taken.

Treatments for PAD vary. Lifestyle modification is important to reduce your risk for disease progression and serious cardiovascular complications. Quitting smoking is the most important thing you can do for your health. A healthy diet and exercise are also critical.

Your provider may recommend a walking or supervised exercise program to help alleviate your PAD symptoms. You may also be referred to a dietitian for weight loss assistance.

In addition, your provider may prescribe medication to help with pain or improve blood flow and circulation. If your PAD is severe, you may need a procedure to open up your blood vessels.

You may not know that you are at risk for heart and vascular disease. It’s important to talk to your primary care provider if you experience leg pain or cramping; discomfort or heaviness in the chest, jaw or arm; shortness of breath; dizziness; nausea; or similar symptoms.