Your legs hurt when you walk for more than a few minutes and you’re starting to feel like you’re missing out on life. Maybe you had to pass on an afternoon of shopping with friends, or skipped your weekly golf outing. If you’re living with claudication, a common symptom of peripheral artery disease, it can be a struggle to keep the pain under control. But the good news is that it can be done—often without surgery or drugs.
So what does it take to improve this kind of leg pain? The short answer is that it takes exercise. But wait, you might be thinking: It’s exercise that causes the pain. How can it be the solution?
By exercising, you’ll be conditioning your muscles to use oxygen more effectively, and that means less pain. The key is to push through some degree of discomfort while taking strategic breaks so that the pain never becomes too much to bear.
In its article, Exercise Prescription for Patients with Claudication, the American Academy of Family Physicians prescribes a very specific claudication treatment—and all you need is a place to walk, whether that be a treadmill, sidewalk or outdoor trail or track. Here’s what the Academy suggests:
- For your first workout, walk at a pace that causes your legs to hurt within three to five minutes. If you’re on a treadmill, you can also adjust the grade. Walk at this workload until you feel pain of moderate severity (about 5 on a scale of 1 to 10).
- Rest or sit until the pain subsides.
- Repeat this sequence of exercise-rest-exercise until you have walked a total of 35 minutes.
- Repeat this workout three to five times a week, building up to an eventual total of 55 minutes of intermittent walking. Remember, as your symptoms improve, you will likely have to increase your pace or grade to ensure that claudication pain occurs during the workout. Once you’ve met your goal of walking 55 minutes, it’s no longer necessary to push harder or walk longer to feel pain, but you must keep up your regular walks to continue to reap the benefits of the program.
A number of studies have shown that, after six months of this training, the degree of improvement in pain-free walking is similar to—or even greater than—that occurring after revascularization.
Managing life with claudication is a multi-pronged commitment. In addition to exercise, there are a few other important steps to take. You’ve heard it before, but smoking is just about the most damaging thing you can do to the arteries in your legs. If you are diabetic, make sure your sugars are under good control. You’ve heard this one, too, but the power of a healthy diet also can’t be ignored. Limit unhealthy fats and high-sugar foods. Eat your fruits, veggies and whole grains. In conjunction with exercise, eating right can help keep your blood pressure under control, which is critical in keeping claudication under control.
It’s also important to wear shoes that fit and to protect your feet and legs. Because of reduced blood flow to the extremities, people with peripheral artery disease are at greater risk for complications from injuries. Walking barefoot is a bad idea and for summertime, it is a good idea to pick up a pair of water shoes that you can wear into the surf or even the pool.
A hidden culprit for those who experience claudication is pseudoephedrine, a drug found in many over-the-counter cold and sinus medications that is known to constrict blood vessels. Instead, ask your doctor or pharmacist for a medicine that will help you feel better without increasing your leg pain.
At the end of a long day, after you’ve pushed through and gotten your walk in, there is one final, easy piece of advice to follow. Raise the head of your bed by 4 to 6 inches so that your legs are below your heart. Doing so improves circulation to your feet, allowing you to hit the sack knowing that you’re taking care of yourself even as you sleep.
Keep on the right track, keep up the hard work and, before you know it, you’ll be back on the golf course, hitting the shops with your friends and doing all the things you love to do. Claudication is a common symptom of peripheral artery disease, when plaque collects in the arteries and reduces the circulation of blood. Think you may be at risk? Find out how to make the most of your visit to our Snyder White Heart & Vascular Center by downloading our guide, Understanding Leg Pain Caused by Restricted Arteries.
Claudication is a common symptom of peripheral artery disease, when plaque collects in the arteries and reduces the circulation of blood. Think you may be at risk? Find out how to make the most of your visit to our Snyder White Heart & Vascular Center by downloading our guide, Understanding Leg Pain Caused by Restricted Arteries.