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What is Claudication, and Are You at Risk?

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You put the dog on the leash, grab your jacket and head out for a nice walk. But by the time you’re halfway around the block, you feel it—pain or discomfort in your lower legs.

While this can stem from various causes, if the pain comes back every time you exercise and was not caused by any obvious injury, it could be claudication.

Claudication—which comes from the Latin word that means “to limp”—is a common symptom of peripheral artery disease. We all know that plaque buildup affects the blood supply to the heart, but that’s not the whole story. When narrowing arteries limit blood flow to the legs or arms, it’s called claudication. The condition can be serious, but it’s also treatable.

The symptoms almost always begin with fatigue, cramping or pain in the lower extremities while exercising, most commonly in the calf muscles. Typically, the pain goes away with rest, usually within a few minutes. If, however, the pain persists even after activity ends, it may indicate an advancing case of peripheral artery disease. Open wounds on the toes or feet could indicate a more serious case—and require immediate medical attention.

Peripheral artery disease affects more than 10 million people in the United States and is most common in those age 65 and older. Risk factors include smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and a family history of atherosclerosis or peripheral artery disease.

Leg pain can also be caused by joint or muscle pain or even spinal stenosis, and it’s not uncommon for people to ignore such pain, assuming it’s just part of getting older. But claudication can and should be treated before it gets worse, which is why it’s important to see a doctor.

Prepare for your appointment by taking notes on when and where you feel pain. Is it while standing, sitting or moving? Is it in your feet, calves, thighs or buttocks? Is it with you all the time or does it go away with rest? Prepare a list of any medications you are on and take a moment to consider if there have been any big changes in your life—a new job, new exercise routine or new source of stress.

Several tests are commonly done to make a diagnosis of claudication, including checking the pulses in your feet, using the ankle-brachial index to compare the blood pressure in your ankles to the blood pressure in your arms, a Doppler ultrasound to monitor blood flow and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computerized tomography (CT).

The first line of defense against claudication is to make the same type of lifestyle changes that improve heart health: Stop smoking, start exercising and eat a healthy diet. Claudication treatment can also include prescription medicines and, in more advanced cases, surgical procedures.

Think your leg pain might be claudication? Find out how to make the most of your visit to our Snyder/White Heart & Vascular Center by downloading our guide, Five Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Claudication.

It’s an easy first step to take in staying healthy and pain-free.

reduced leg pain

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