Aches and pains are largely considered a rite of passage as we age. Certain discomforts, however, warrant prompt treatment
By Kinsey Gidick
Intermittent cramping in the legs: That sounds like an innocent enough ache—a normal part of aging, right? The truth is, it’s one of the most common red flags for peripheral artery disease (PAD), a serious condition that, if left untreated, can cause debilitating pain, immobility or even amputation. If you’re scratching your head right about now (peripheral what?) you’re not alone: Despite affecting more than 8.5 million Americans, studies show that only a quarter of the general population is familiar with PAD.
So what is this serious, mysterious condition? “Peripheral artery disease occurs when plaque builds up within artery walls, narrowing the artery and reducing the blood flow that passes through it, a process called atherosclerosis,” explains Dr. Mary Hanley, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated board certified wound care and hyperbaric medicine specialist. “The result is decreased circulation to the limbs.” In addition to cramps in the legs or buttocks while walking, symptoms include foot pain that disrupts sleep, paleness or a blue hue in the lower limbs and sores that don’t heal.
Since it develops over time, a person’s risk for PAD increases with age. “People over 50 are at increased risk,” says Dr. Hanley. “That risk is even higher if you smoke; have had or have a family history of diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart attack or stroke; or are of African-American ancestry.” Discuss any risk factors for or symptoms of the condition with your primary care doctor, who may want to test you for the disease.
For those diagnosed with PAD, lifestyle changes can significantly improve symptoms (see sidebar). “If needed, your doctor may prescribe an antiplatelet medicine, or blood thinner, to prevent clotting,” adds Dr. Hanley. And, in severe cases, surgical treatment, such as leg stents or arterial bypass surgery, may be recommended. The bottom line? “Though PAD isn’t curable, it can be managed and pain can be reduced,” says Dr. Hanley.
PAD BY THE NUMBERS
- In a 12-year study involving 38,000 women, Harvard researchers found that those who smoked were 10 times more likely to develop PAD than those who did not smoke. (The CDC notes that smokers are between two and six times more likely to have the condition.)
- The American Heart Association estimates that 20 to 50 percent of people with PAD are asymptomatic.
- Diabetes is a major risk factor for PAD: one in three diabetics over age 50 suffer from the condition.
PREVENT THE PAIN
Certain lifestyle measures can both ward off peripheral artery disease and reduce its symptoms.
- Quit smoking. Smoking cigarettes speeds up the rate at which plaque builds up in the arteries and reduces blood flow, making it one of the greatest
risk factors for PAD.
- Get moving. Regular exercise can both help prevent and minimize the symptoms of PAD. Since cramping while walking (known as intermittent claudication) is a chief symptom of the condition, those with pre-existing PAD may need to work with a physical therapist to manage pain during activity.
- Monitor chronic conditions. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes all increase your risk for developing PAD. Eating a nutritious diet that’s low in cholesterol, trans fats and saturated fats and exercising regularly can help manage and prevent these chronic conditions. Regular visits with your primary care doctor or specialists and careful use of medications can keep them in check, as well.
- Tend to your feet. People with PAD—especially those who are diabetic—have an increased risk for developing sores on their lower extremities. Wash, dry and moisturize feet regularly (the latter can help prevent cracks, which increase risk of infection). Check your feet daily for wounds or sores and seek treatment from a wound care specialist immediately if a sore develops.
NEW RESEARCH: Out of the Blue
A new study on fruit flies cautions against a potentially harmful effect of prolonged exposure to blue light
Many of us spend our waking hours bouncing from screen to screen, answering texts, typing emails, relaxing in front of the tube. And while it’s fairly common knowledge that exposure to blue light (which glows from our beloved devices as well as LED bulbs) can wreak havoc on our sleep, researchers from Oregon State University College of Science recently discovered another potential drawback: Prolonged daily exposure to blue light, they found, may accelerate aging. For the study, researchers examined how fruit flies respond to blue light (these humble insects are often studied as they share close to 60 percent of genes with humans and have a brief lifespan). There were three sets of flies: One group spent 12 hours exposed to blue light and 12 hours in darkness, a second group spent full days in darkness and a third batch spent 12 hours in light with blue light filtered out and 12 hours in darkness. The flies that faced the blue light had shorter lifespans than all others, and also suffered damage to brain neurons and retinal cells, something unobserved in the other flies. Researchers say these findings underscore the potential benefits of blue light-blocking glasses and of limiting exposure to devices, whenever possible.