Barry Jensen just wanted to walk without experiencing intense leg pain, heaviness in his legs and severe cramping.
For years, Jensen lived with peripheral artery disease (PAD), a condition caused by plaque build-up in the arteries that carry blood to a person’s legs. PAD often triggers leg pain, heaviness and fatigue, which can lead to limited mobility.
“I couldn’t even make it around the block without my legs severely cramping up,” he said. “I had tears in my eyes. I was stumbling back home because my legs hurt so badly,” he said. “I sat down and thought: How the heck am I going to get better if I can’t even walk around the block?”
In 2010, the PAD-related pain became too much for Jensen to bear. He received two arterial stents—one in each leg—to increase blood flow and relieve his symptoms. After the procedure, Jensen once again began to feel flaring pain and cramps when he started walking. In the summer of 2017, he underwent an angioplasty in his right leg to remove a blockage in a blood vessel. This helped, but he was still concerned about recurring cramps.
That’s when Jensen found the Wellness and Exercise For Life (WEL) Program at Fairview Southdale Hospital. The supervised exercise program, developed in tandem with vascular cardiologists at University of Minnesota Health Heart Care, helps patients increase mobility and decrease their PAD symptoms through a supervised treadmill exercise regimen.
WEL program patients are encouraged to walk for 20 to 30 minutes before taking a short break and starting again, going as long as they can before their leg pain becomes too severe. Sessions are typically held three times a week, and often last between 30-60 minutes.
Supervised exercise may help legs heal by promoting a process called angiogenesis, in which new blood vessels form to help the legs walk for longer, said University of Minnesota Health Cardiologist Christina Fanola, MD, MSC, who is a vascular cardiology specialist.
“Walking through the pain in some cases can be helpful, which is very interesting and counterintuitive to a lot of people,” Fanola said. “It’s not like cardiac pain, where the heart muscle is getting damaged when there’s pain. With the lower extremities, when you walk through that pain, they may actually get better.”
Like coronary artery disease, PAD is also caused by factors including high cholesterol, diabetes, hypertension and smoking. Fanola said a sedentary lifestyle also appears to be a significant risk factor for poor vascular health. Leg artery blockages stemming from PAD represent a health danger because it increases a person’s risk of heart attack or stroke. If left untreated, PAD can lead to amputation or death.
Jensen had lived an active life before his stroke and leg pain; he played sports and held an active job. For years, 63-year-old Jensen thought his constant leg pain stemmed from a stroke or was simply the result of aging. This a common belief among older patients who develop PAD, Fanola said.
“We encourage patients to pay attention to that pain. We don’t want them to chalk leg pain up to advanced age or to arthritis or to back pain,” she said. “The sooner we diagnose someone with PAD, the more effective our treatment can be.”
After three months of supervised walking through the WEL program, Jensen said his PAD leg pain has significantly decreased. Now, he’s able to move around more easily, though he has not yet achieved full mobility. Before his therapy, Jensen used to map out his route around the block, strategically walking by bus stops and park benches so he’d have places to rest. Now, that worry is gone.
“The therapy really helped a lot,” he said. “I was just so tired of not being healthy, of not being able to get out and live my life like I wanted. This program gave me the strength to move again.”