Dear Savvy Senior: For the last six months or so, I’ve been having problems with my hips and legs cramping when I walk, although they feel better once I stop. I thought it was just because I’m getting old, but my friend was telling me about a leg vein disease called PAD. What can you tell me about this condition? — Limping at 60
Dear Limping: The health condition your friend is telling you about is peripheral arterial disease (or PAD), which affects up to 12 million Americans.
It happens when the arteries that carry blood to the legs and feet become narrowed or clogged over the years with fatty deposits or plaque, causing poor circulation.
But you also need to be aware that because this is a systemic disease, people who have it are also much more likely to have clogged arteries in other areas of the body, like the heart, neck and brain, which greatly increase the risks of heart attack or stroke.
Unfortunately, it goes undiagnosed and untreated way too often because most people that have it experience few if any symptoms. The most common symptom, however, is similar to what you’re experiencing: pain and cramping in the hip, thigh or calf muscles, especially when walking or exercising, but which usually disappears after resting for a few minutes.
Another reason this disease is underdiagnosed is because many people assume that aches and pains go along with aging.
Other possible symptoms to be aware of include leg numbness or weakness, coldness or skin color changes in the lower legs and feet, or ulcers or sores on the legs or feet that don’t heal.
Are you at risk?
Like most other health conditions, the risk of developing the disease increases with age. Those most vulnerable are people over the age of 50 who smoke or used to smoke, have elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, are overweight or have a family history of peripheral arterial disease, heart attack or stroke. African-Americans are twice as likely to have it as Caucasians.
To determine whether you are suffering from the disease, you need to be tested by your doctor. He or she will probably perform a painless ankle-brachial index test, which is done by comparing the blood pressure in your ankle with your arm.
It can often be treated with lifestyle modifications, such as an improved diet, increased physical activity and smoking cessation.
If this is not enough, your doctor might prescribe medicine to prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and control pain.
To learn more about PAD, visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/pad.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.