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Five things you should know about peripheral artery disease (PAD)

Blockages in your leg arteries are often the first evidence of a major health problem. PAD patients often mistake leg muscle fatigue and pain symptoms as normal aging.
Mark Bakken, RN, is the program manager for the University of Minnesota Health vascular medicine program. He and other health professionals help treat vascular conditions, including peripheral artery disease (PAD).

Clogged arteries are a major health risk, no matter where in your body they may occur. In your chest, an artery blocked by plaque can dramatically raise your risk of a heart attack. In your neck, the same condition can lead to a stroke.

What’s not so well known is that the arteries carrying blood to your legs—known in the medical community as “peripheral arteries”—can also get clogged. This, too, can be a serious health crisis. In fact, leg artery blockages represent a danger to your health that is equal or greater than blockages in arteries to your brain or heart—and can carry an equal or higher risk of heart attack, stroke, amputation, or death.

Why?  Artery damage from aging, tobacco use, diabetes, an adverse family history, high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels occurs throughout the body and not in just one place.  

We talked with Mark Bakken, RN, the program manager for the University of Minnesota Health vascular medicine program, about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of peripheral artery disease, or PAD.

PAD is a serious condition that should be diagnosed promptly so doctors can reduce your risk as quickly as possible.

PAD may be your first warning sign of a serious health problem. Atherosclerosis—or clogging—in the peripheral arteries is dangerous. If you have atherosclerosis in your legs, it’s almost certainly occurring elsewhere in the body, Bakken said. That is why all patients with PAD, regardless of whether leg pain is present, are at increased short-term risk of a heart attack or a stroke. This risk means that one in five people with PAD, if left undiagnosed and untreated, will suffer a heart attack, stroke or death within five years. PAD, when untreated, can have other serious consequences, including leg muscle pain, discomfort during exertion and subsequent loss of independence. In rare cases, both blockages and blood clots in the arteries may lead to pain at rest, foot skin ulcers or amputation. The good news is that these health problems can almost always be prevented.

Some people are more likely than others to suffer from PAD.

PAD is extremely common and affects as many as 5 percent of all adults and 20 percent of people over age 65. You’re more likely to develop PAD if you are 50 years old or older; now smoke or have ever smoked; have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol; or have a parent or sibling diagnosed with PAD. People who previously suffered a heart attack or stroke are more likely to have PAD. Also, African Americans are twice as likely to develop PAD than others with identical risk factors.

You may not know you have PAD.

Some people with PAD experience no symptoms at all, Bakken said. Many others do notice that they can’t walk as far or fast as they used to without experiencing leg muscle pain or cramping—which is known by the medical term “claudication.” Still, many affected people may chalk this pain up to ordinary aging or lack of exercise. In a clinical setting, vascular medicine specialists and other health professionals should evaluate people with hallmark warning signs—including sores or wounds on the feet that don’t heal within a month of injury.

Learn more about peripheral artery disease diagnosis and treatment.

PAD can be treated—and the treatment is easy, safe, inexpensive and ideally non-invasive.     

Over the last 25 years, groundbreaking research conducted by University of Minnesota clinicians and researchers in collaboration with national colleagues have proven that very specific exercise routines can be as effective in the treatment of claudication pain as inserting a balloon into the affected artery to open up blockages. This procedure, known as stent placement, is sometimes necessary and can be helpful, but exercise programs can be equally or even more effective than any other treatment. Medications, smoking cessation and increased patient knowledge are all essential components of care that can quickly lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, amputation and death. 

Learn more about our vascular medicine program.

M Health is uniquely positioned to diagnose and treat the problem.

University of Minnesota Health offers a comprehensive, interdisciplinary and cost-effective clinical approach to all vascular care, Bakken said. Our vascular medicine specialists, surgeons, radiologists and rehabilitation experts collaborate as one team to treat the entire disease process and ensure patients enjoy the best possible outcomes. Our dedicated peripheral artery disease rehabilitation program is fully integrated into our healthcare system for ease of access for our patients.