Ease Your Leg and Arm Pain From Peripheral Artery Disease

Cheryl Wilson went from 5k races to struggling to walk a few blocks.

When that happened, Wilson, a 63-year-old wellness coach from Chesapeake, Va., Shrugged him off like a charley horse. But the pain persisted for weeks and made walking unbearable. So Wilson finally went to see his doctor.

“Every time I walked a short distance, my legs hurt,” Wilson says. “It was in my calf, behind the knee.”

In 2009, Wilson was diagnosed with Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD). She had never heard of the disease, which affects 6.5 million adults over the age of 40. PAD occurs when the arteries that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body narrow. This can lead to a buildup of sticky plaque which can block blood flow and cause pain.

Wilson began his treatment plan, which included stents to widen the narrowed arteries in his legs, would be “one and it’s done.”

Instead, 1 month after his initial procedure, Wilson was back in the cardiac catheterization lab so his doctors could implant additional stents to keep his arteries open. They also prescribed cholesterol medications and blood thinners to improve blood flow and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The ordeal marked Wilson’s realization that PAD “was not curable”.

Wilson has learned that lifestyle changes could help ease leg pain and prevent more damage. She focused on eating a balanced diet and started training regularly. She also quit smoking, which is linked to a higher risk of more severe PAD, including a higher risk of amputation.

Walk more, hurt less

Wilson had been very active before her leg pain started. In fact, Wilson’s cardiologist often saw her walking on the treadmill in their gym. After Wilson’s diagnosis, her doctor encouraged her to resume solo training.

“Yeah, I was slow and it hurt and I quit, but I wouldn’t give up,” Wilson says.

Studies show that walking programs for PAD should hurt, at least a little. Researchers found that a high-intensity walking routine that increased leg pain resulted in more improvements in walking distance than a low-intensity walking routine.

“The simplest and most effective treatment (for leg and arm pain) is supervised exercise therapy,” says Michael H. Criqui, MD, MPH, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. “People who take supervised exercise therapy will be able to walk longer and do more with PAD. “

The structured exercise program may include treadmill walking, cycling, and strength training for 30 to 45 minutes at least three times a week for 12 weeks.

“Once you learn it works and stick with it, you can see changes in 3-4 weeks,” Criqui adds. The results may be “better than what you will get with medication.”

Joshua Beckman, MD, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and chair of the American Heart Association’s vascular health advisory committee, suggests a “slow and steady” approach to establishing gait training.

“Walk until you feel discomfort, stop and rest, then start walking again,” Beckman says.

This is the advice Wilson followed. She continued to walk even when her pain was so intense that she wanted to give up. In 2020, 4 months after undergoing bypass surgery for MAP, she crossed the finish line of another 5 km race.

“It was a good ego boost that I could do that,” she says.

Other treatment options

Sometimes exercise alone may not be enough to banish arm and leg pain. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to lower cholesterol or to thin your blood. Beckman says other medications can help increase blood flow, reduce pain, and help you walk farther.

A medical procedure called revascularization, which uses tiny balloons or stents to open up the arteries, might also be needed, Beckman explains.

For Wilson, her commitment to not smoking, eating healthy, exercising and taking her medications has helped her return to her favorite activities.

“I think what made me push harder was wanting to get my quality of life back,” Wilson says. When diagnosed, pain prevented her from running – an important part of her profession as a wellness coach.

“These are the things people appreciate about you,” she says. “So I went back there, took responsibility for my health and it worked.”

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