Leg muscle cramps are not always the result of a hefty meal before exercise. In fact, these pains can signal a much more serious condition, peripheral arterial disease, known more commonly as PAD. This disease restricts blood flow in the arteries.
“PAD narrows or sometimes even blocks the arteries that carry blood to your body’s muscles and organs,” explains Jeff Lindenbaum, DO, an osteopathic family physician practicing in Yardley, Pennsylvania. “This blockage or narrowing is commonly caused by the buildup of fatty deposits, or atherosclerosis.”
Symptoms of PAD include pain in the calf or thigh muscle that occurs after walking a short distance, like a block or two. The cramping associated with PAD stops after you rest because the muscles require less blood flow. This symptom, called claudication, is the most commonly experienced signal of PAD. However, some patients may not feel the cramping associated with claudication, but experience numbness, weakness or heaviness in the muscles.
“In patients with severe cases of PAD, or those that go untreated, the lack of blood flow to the feet and legs may cause a burning or aching pain in the feet and toes when the individual is resting, specifically at night,” explains Dr. Lindenbaum.
Other symptoms of the disease include cooling of the skin in specific areas of the legs or feet; color changes in the skin; and toe and foot sores that do not heal.
Risk Factors for PAD
According to Dr. Lindenbaum, while PAD is often diagnosed in individuals over 60 years old, several other risk factors can increase the likelihood for someone to develop the disease:
“Some patients may have PAD without experiencing the symptoms," he explains. "Since this disease puts sufferers at a higher risk for early heart attack and stroke, if you have several of the risk factors, it is important to consult your family physician immediately.”
Several treatment options exist for PAD sufferers, depending on their current lifestyle. A physician may recommend treatment involving one or more of the following:
“Consult your family physician to prevent or detect this disease in the early stages,” advises Dr. Lindenbaum. "An early diagnosis can save lives.”
Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine, or DOs, look beyond your symptoms to understand how lifestyle and environmental factors affect your wellbeing. They listen and partner with you to help you get healthy and stay well. They also encourage your body’s natural tendency toward self-healing.