How Exercise Can Help in Peripheral Artery Disease

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IT'S SOMETIMES CALLED "window-shopper's disease." As walking brings on leg cramps and pain, people with peripheral artery disease must frequently stop for breaks. When they rest, pain subsides. When they resume walking, PAD pain kicks back in.

PAD is common among older adults. About one in every 20 Americans over age 50 has PAD, with up to 12 million people affected overall, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

People may mistakenly believe painful walking is part of normal aging. However, PAD is linked to higher risks of cardiovascular complications such as heart attacks or strokes. PAD shouldn't be suffered stoically or in silence. If you have symptoms, you need a medical evaluation.

Exercise is a first-line treatment for PAD. The catch is that walking discomfort may cause PAD sufferers to shy away from movement. Fortunately, structured exercise therapy can help. Better walking ability, improved cardiovascular test results and increased quality of life occur in patients who complete these programs, multiple studies show.

Supervised by health care experts and now covered by Medicare, exercise programs help PAD patients build endurance and tolerance and learn how to safely walk past the point of discomfort.

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ABCs of PAD

Here are some of the basics of PAD and exercise treatment:

What is peripheral artery disease? Peripheral artery disease, also called peripheral arterial disease, is a painful, chronic condition involving blockages in the arteries supplying blood to the legs. PAD is a type of peripheral vascular disease, which refers to any disease involving the vascular system outside the heart.

Normally, healthy arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body. In patients with PAD, atherosclerosis, or narrowing and hardening of the arteries caused by fatty plaque, interferes with blood flow to the extremities – usually the legs, although arms are sometimes affected.

Cramping, pain and fatigue of the leg and hip muscles when walking or climbing stairs are the most common symptoms of PAD.

What is claudication? Claudication is the cramping pain particularly associated with PAD. Sometimes called intermittent claudication, it's usually caused by a lack of blood flow while exercising, but can also occur at rest as PAD worsens. Advanced PAD symptoms may include skin ulcerations or sores and cold, discolored, bluish legs, feet and toes. Some patients experience weakness of the extremities.

How is PAD treated? Diagnosis for PAD is done with a simple, noninvasive test using blood pressure cuffs and Doppler ultrasound. If blood pressure in the ankles is lower than in the arms, that's suggestive of PAD. Vascular specialists may order additional imaging tests of the blood vessels, called angiograms.

PAD is sometimes treated with medication such as blood thinners like aspirin to prevent clots, statin drugs to slow plaque buildup and blood pressure drugs.

Smoking and diabetes are strong risk factors for PAD. Diabetes management, smoking cessation, meticulous foot care and staying physically active are essential treatment components.

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If you have any questions or would like to set up an appointment, Dr. Chopra and his associates can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at (708) 486-2600 or email info@mimithealth.com.