Your Health A-Z

Can leg pain or numbness signify peripheral arterial disease?

This circulatory disorder effects the functioning of your arteries – and can be an early warning sign of major heart problems. Mediclinic cardiologist Dr Philip Mills explains the risks, and your testing and treatment options.  

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD), also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD), is a narrowing of the arteries outside of the heart and brain. Primarily affecting the legs and arms, it can also cause blood blockages in arteries leading to the intestines, heart and brain.

This means a pain in the leg may not be just a pain in the leg, but a sign of something much more serious.

What Is PAD?

Affecting the arterial structure and functioning of the aorta, viscera and lower extremities, PAD is a circulatory disease that affects a person’s extremities. It also catches many people unawares. The reason? Well, PAD can be quite asymptomatic.

Considering the fact that something as simple as leg pain or numbness is not generally associated with cardiovascular disease, it is perhaps no wonder that so many cases of PAD are not diagnosed early enough.

What Causes PAD?

“Atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, is the primary cause of PAD,” says Dr Philip Mills, a cardiologist at Mediclinic Constantiaberg. “This is the build-up of fatty substances, cholesterol, calcium and other substances on the walls and inner linings of your arteries. We call the build-up plaque, and it can disrupt normal blood flow by creating blockages.”

What is atherosclerosis?

Because different arteries have different functions, this narrowing can have different effects on your vital organs. Plaque can also break up unexpectedly, leading to dangerous clots in the blood. “When atherosclerosis occurs in arteries that supply blood to our hearts or our brains this can lead to heart attacks or strokes,” he says. “But in your peripheral arteries, this can cause poor circulation in your legs, kidneys or bowel and even lead to aneurysms.”

Poor eating habits in the form of fat- and carbohydrate-rich diets, as well as sedentary lifestyles and stress, are the major contributing factors. This results in a surplus of fatty deposits in the arteries, the build-up of plaque affecting blood circulation around the body and a less-than-adequate supply of blood to the limbs, particularly the legs.

Your hands can indicate other health issues.

In extreme cases, PAD can also affect blood flow to the heart and brain. Preventative measures and early detection of this disorder are therefore a must. The most obvious symptoms are as follows:

  • Leg pain or cramps whilst walking (claudication), particularly in the calf muscle
  • Leg weakness or numbness
  • Chronic leg or foot sores
  • Shiny skin colour on your legs
  • Leg discolouration
  • Loss of leg or foot hair
  • Slow growth of toenails

Early detection helps

“Usually, patients see their cardiologists once they are aware they have a problem with their heart,” says Dr Mills. “But because PAD is asymptomatic, by this time, it can be too late. Once you are aware of symptoms, the condition could be well advanced – this makes it trickier to treat.”

Many of these symptoms are vague and infrequent in occurrence. They might even occur when you’re resting or lying down. And because of this, well over half of people who are unknowingly suffering from PAD shrug off these early warning signs. Potential PAD patients walk slower and less frequently and, in turn, fall into more sedentary habits.

Screening for PAD is vital for those who are:

– Over the age of 65 years
– Suffering from diabetes (all ages)
– Smokers (over 50 years)
– Suffering from low pulse rates in the lower limbs
– Suffering from renal, coronary or cerebral disease

Simple solutions

“As with almost any form of cardiovascular disease, catching signs of PAD early greatly improves your chances of doing something about it,” says Dr Mills. “Early detection helps you live a longer life, improve your quality of life, and keeps you out of your doctor’s office.”

While the instances of PAD in the more advanced age groups is high, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, some simple lifestyle adjustments are all it takes to lessen the risk of PAD and ensure a healthier and more prosperous life in general.

Don’t smoke: Smoking causes inflammation, itself a direct cause of atherosclerosis.

You are what you eat: Yes, it’s true. Avoid or eliminate refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, eat plenty of green vegetables and healthy fats, and keep well hydrated.

Move: No, you don’t have to suffer to be in shape. Regular walking, upon your doctor’s approval of course, will keep you fit and healthy, and control your body weight.

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.