Peripheral arterial disease can be as serious as a heart attack

Peripheral arterial disease can be as serious as a heart attack

If you have trouble walking, don’t rush to dismiss your problem as a natural sign of aging. You may be experiencing symptoms of peripheral arterial disease, a serious but treatable condition.

While most people understand that narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries can lead to a heart attack, not many are aware that the same type of blockage in other arteries of the body can lead to life-altering consequences.

An estimated 10 million adults in the United States have peripheral arterial disease, or PAD. The condition is characterized by reduced blood flow due to narrowing of the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the rest of the body. It often affects the legs and feet, causing symptoms while walking such as weakness, tiredness, aching, or cramping that resolve within 10 minutes after rest.

Vascular surgeon Aidan Hamm, MD, is a member of the fellowship team of vascular surgeons at East Bethesda Hospital and West Bethesda Hospital, part of Baptist Health.

“We see a lot of people who say, ‘Oh, I thought I had arthritis. Or, ‘I thought I was getting old and my legs were tired.’ Some say, ‘I thought I had a problem because I was having some weight.’ They deny the problem and don’t mention it in their doctor visits until more serious symptoms appear,” says Jarrah. Vascular Aidan Hamm, MD, is a fellow of the fellowship team of vascular surgeons at East Bethesda Hospital and West Bethesda Hospital, part of Baptist Health.

“The legs are asking for more blood, but you can’t give it to them because there’s a blockage in the arteries,” Dr. Hamm explains.

Dr. Hamm notes that peripheral arterial disease develops gradually. If not treated, it can cause widespread blood vessel damage and other health problems. In the United States, PAD results in an estimated 150,000 leg amputations annually.

“The severity ranges from people who are ill but not asymptomatic, to people who come in with limb-threatening emergencies that you have to get to the operating room immediately,” says Dr. Hamm. As with most cases, the faster peripheral arterial disease is treated, the more successful treatment will be, he adds.

What causes peripheral arterial disease?

Peripheral arterial disease occurs when a buildup of fatty deposits called plaques causes blood vessels to narrow and stiffen, a condition known as atherosclerosis. The plaque sticks to the walls of the arteries and can eventually prevent blood from reaching the organs and the rest of the body. It is a common cause of heart disease.

Atherosclerosis can appear anywhere in the body – not only in the arteries of the heart, but also in the legs, arms, kidneys, intestines, and brain. Everywhere,” says Dr. Hamm. “Treatment can range from conservative medical treatment to minimally invasive surgical interventions or complex surgeries.”

Anyone can develop peripheral arterial disease, but some risk factors can make you more susceptible, including smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and age 60 or older. Diabetics and blacks also have a higher rate of PAD.

How is peripheral arterial disease treated?

“This is a serious illness,” says Ian Del Conde, MD, a cardiologist and vascular specialist who treats PAD patients at the Miami Heart and Vascular Institute, also part of Baptist Health. “Everyone with PAD has a high risk of having a heart attack. Strict preventive measures are essential.”

If you’ve been diagnosed with PAD, your treatment will depend on its severity, location, and your overall health. Doctors first want to make sure your disease doesn’t progress, so patients are often put on medications to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. You may also be given medications to prevent a blood clot from forming, which can happen when a blood vessel narrows.

In more advanced cases, intervention options include a minimally invasive procedure called angioplasty, in which a small catheter is inserted through an artery in the wrist or groin to the blockage and a balloon is inflated, pushing the plaque against the artery walls. Some patients may need an atherectomy, in which plaque is removed from the artery. Others may undergo a bypass, using a blood vessel from another part of the body or an artificial vessel.

Why is PAD a concern

Because peripheral arterial disease is very common and can have serious consequences, medical organizations Across the country they are coming together to raise awareness. September is Peripheral Arterial Disease Awareness Month, although the condition is a concern throughout the year.

“When people appear in advanced conditions, it is much more difficult to save things, especially if we talk about saving limbs,” says Dr. Hamm. “If they had come a little sooner, we would have done something — either minimally invasive or aggressive, like re-opening of the vessels — to save limbs, prevent strokes, or prevent aneurysms.”

Dr. Hamm says people diagnosed with heart disease should be especially vigilant.

“If you start to build up plaques and atherosclerosis in the heart, that’s a harbinger of them being elsewhere,” he says. “Doing screening and follow-up early is a good way to prevent complications.”

what you can do

Since the hardened arteries that cause problems in your legs can also affect the blood vessels in your heart and brain, it’s important to discuss the risks with your doctor. You can also improve your health profile by maintaining a healthy weight, increasing physical activity, controlling blood sugar levels if you have diabetes, quitting smoking, and avoiding all types of tobacco or nicotine.

Even if walking is difficult for you, do not give up. Avoiding exercise may be a natural response for those with lameness, which is the technical name for pain when walking. However, a recent study suggests that people with restricted blood flow to the legs and feet may be able to improve their long-term walking ability by pushing themselves a bit.

The study published in Journal of the American Heart Association, found that people with PAD who walked at a speed that caused painful symptoms increased their leg function over time more than those who walked at a more comfortable pace. However, the “no gain without pain” approach should be approached with caution, supervision, and in consultation with your physician.

“If you notice that walking is becoming more difficult, if you find it difficult to keep up with others or if you experience pain while walking, talk to your doctor,” advises Dr. Hamm. “People with PAD can lead active, long lives, but they should monitor their condition and consult with a health care professional.”

Tags: Bethesda Hospital, Vascular Diseases, Vascular Surgery


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