legs of person with vein issues

When it Comes to Cardiovascular Health, Don't Overlook Your Legs

You probably wouldn’t ignore pain in your chest. But would you dismiss discomfort in your legs? Many people do not know that when it comes to your cardiovascular system, leg health is as important as heart health.

“A blockage in the leg can be as dangerous as a blockage in the heart,” says Brett Carroll, MD, Director of Vascular Medicine in the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC).

Known as peripheral artery disease or PAD, this condition develops when the arteries that carry blood to the legs become blocked by plaque, the same sticky mix of fats and cholesterols that cause blocked coronary arteries in the heart.

“Left untreated, PAD is a leading cause of limb amputation and can increase a person’s risk of suffering a stroke or heart attack,” adds vascular surgeon Allen Hamdan, MD, Vice Chair of Surgery at BIDMC.

According to the National Institutes of Health, PAD affects eight to 12 million people in the U.S., including one in 20 people over age 50. Although some cases of PAD will require surgery or catheter-based revascularization, Hamdan emphasizes that many cases of PAD can be managed through medications and lifestyle modifications. 

Don’t just stand around. Drs. Carroll and Hamdan recommend the following five tips to keep legs healthy.

1. Watch for Symptoms

Don’t dismiss pain, fatigue, cramps and heaviness in the calf, thigh or buttock as signs that “I’m just getting older and slowing down.” When these symptoms develop while you are walking or climbing stairs, they can be a warning sign of a serious problem. This specific type of pain, known as claudication, is different from other walking issues such as loss of balance or arthritis pain.

“Claudication can cause pain in various ways, but most often occurs with walking, improves with rest and then recurs when you try to walk the same distance again,” explains Carroll. “This pattern of pain is an indication that narrowed arteries may be reducing blood flow to the legs.”

See a doctor for evaluation if you experience this type of pain.

2. Ask About an Ankle Brachial Index Test

As many as 20 percent of patients over age 65 may have leg blockages without knowing it. If you have other risk factors, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure, an ankle brachial index test is a quick way to assess your risk of PAD.

The noninvasive test compares blood pressure measured at the ankle with blood pressure measured at your arm. A low ankle pressure number can indicate narrowing or blockage of the arteries in your legs.

3. Keep Close Tabs on Cholesterol, Blood Pressure and Diabetes

The same factors that can damage your heart can also damage your legs and vascular system. Diabetes, high levels of bad cholesterol and high blood pressure (hypertension), are all leading risk factors for the development of PAD. Be sure to take any medications that your doctor has prescribed to manage these three conditions.

4. Take Care of Your Veins, Too

Not all leg problems are in the arteries. As Hamdan explains, vein disease causes issues with blood flow returning to the heart from the legs. To help promote circulation and prevent vein disease:

  • Keep your weight down
  • Elevate your legs whenever you can
  • Wear compression stockings if they have been prescribed for you
  • Keep your skin healthy with moisturizer if you have chronic swelling
  • Carefully check your feet and legs for signs of wounds or abrasions. Poor foot and leg care can lead to ulcers, gangrene and loss of limbs, especially among patients with diabetes.

5. Be Diligent About Healthy Habits

If you smoke, quit. Cigarette smoking is a principal risk factor for many types of vascular disease, especially PAD. The importance of a healthy diet can’t be emphasized enough: eat fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish. Keep exercising and walking. Even if you have already been diagnosed with PAD, the more you walk, the more conditioned your legs will become, diminishing pain and improving blood flow.

Remember, healthy habits are good for your whole cardiovascular system — from head to toe.

Above content provided by the CardioVascular Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.