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Aching legs: They could be a warning of vascular disease

» Unclogging your arteries

» When the veins are to blame

Assessing your risk

Your chances of having peripheral vascular disease are increased if you:

  • smoke
  • are at least 60 years old
  • have high blood pressure
  • have high blood cholesterol
  • are overweight
  • are sedentary
  • have diabetes
  • have a family history of atherosclerosis at an early age

Are you suffering from chronic pain, aches and fatigue in your legs? Does it interfere with your walking, pain you even at rest? If you have recurrent pain upon exertion, it may be a sign that your vascular system, the network of veins and arteries that carries blood to and from your organs, is not working well. Peripheral vascular disease — clogged arteries in the periphery or further reaches of your body such as your arms or legs — often is the cause of leg pain.

Before you can be diagnosed with peripheral vascular disease, your doctor will take a careful history and probably run some tests, such as a noninvasive arterial test (similar to a blood pressure test but done on the leg), a CT scan or an angiogram. He or she will also rule out other nonvascular conditions that can lead to leg pain, such as arthritis.

Unclogging your arteries

If your doctor determines that leg pain is a result of a narrowing of the arteries in your legs, treatment may include one or more of the following:

  • Self-help steps. If your pain is not severe, your doctor may recommend taking a wait-and-see approach. In addition, he or she may suggest taking steps to improve the underlying condition, such as quitting smoking; reaching and maintaining a healthy weight; exercising; and controlling high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diabetes.
  • Angioplasty. A tiny balloon is threaded into the artery until the point of blockage and then inflated to clear it out.
  • Stents. Small devices are placed in the artery to keep them from closing again. Stents are frequently used in combination with angioplasty.
  • Endarterectomy. This technique involves removing the blockage.
  • Bypass. Surgeons use some of your own veins and artificial materials to create a detour around the blocked area.

When the veins are to blame

Sometimes it’s not the arteries but your veins that are at fault. Tiny spider veins that are visible on the surface of the skin are harmless, but varicose veins, which can show under the skin as gnarled clusters, can cause leg pain.

Depending on the severity, your doctor may recommend that you wear tight surgical stockings whenever you are standing. These stockings push the blood deep inside the vascular system and encourage the blood to circulate properly. Elevating your legs when you rest helps, too. Large clusters of varicose veins may need to be surgically removed and bypassed in a procedure similar to arterial bypass.

Whatever the cause of your leg pain, do see a doctor. With today’s medical advances in vascular disease, you should be able to stop the ache.


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