September is PAD awareness month. PAD stands for peripheral arterial disease, a common vascular disease that is often underdiagnosed and undertreated, affecting an estimated 8-10 million Americans. Raising awareness is important because people who are not aware of PAD often believe their symptoms are just due to their age or being out of shape, when they may in fact have a serious and life threatening vascular disease.
What is PAD
PAD is a circulatory problem that occurs when blood vessels in the leg become narrowed or blocked by plaque, most often due to smoking. This raises the risk of heart attack, stroke, and gangrene that could lead to leg amputation. Blockages can build up over a lifetime, but symptoms may not – and often don’t – become manifest until later in life.
Symptoms of PAD
Initial symptoms may include painful cramping in the calves, thighs, or buttocks making it difficult to walk. The pain and cramping tends to occur regularly when active, but goes away at rest. Other symptoms may include aching or burning pain in the toes and feet, especially when lying flat. Non-healing wounds on the feet, ankles, and calves are also key indicators of PAD.
Who is at Risk
If you are over age 50, have ever been a smoker, have diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, you are at risk of PAD. It’s important that you work with your care provider to manage these risk factors. It may also be wise to talk to your care provider about whether you would benefit from vascular screening. This is generally performed by a vascular specialist utilizing painless ultrasound technology. Most insurances will cover screening with a care provider’s referral.
Treatment for PAD
As is the case with most disease, the best treatment is prevention. Managing diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure are vital to preventing PAD, but most importantly you should stop smoking immediately, as smoking is the leading cause of plaque build-up in blood vessels. Regular exercise amounting to as little as walking for 30 minutes-three times a week is another effective preventative measure.
Beyond preventative measures, medications such as blood thinners and statin drugs that help control cholesterol levels may be administered. Surgical intervention includes angioplasty, stenting, and atherectomy, minimally invasive procedures performed on an outpatient basis that are designed to clear blood vessel blockages. In more severe cases, bypass surgery or endarterectomy may be in order to address a blockage; these generally require a brief hospital stay.
PAD Awareness is Important
PAD may not only limit the ability to walk; it also increases the risk of amputation and early death. Because this is the least recognized existing vascular problem, many people who suffer from PAD believe their pain and walking limitations are simply due to age or being out of shape and fail to properly address the disease.
Knowing whether you are at risk, recognizing the symptoms, and communicating any symptoms to your care provider in a timely manner may go a long way towards preventing complications from PAD.