Diabetes, a chronic health condition in which the body either fails to produce enough insulin or can’t properly use the insulin it does make, can have serious effects on your overall health if it is not carefully managed. Over time, high blood sugar levels can result in heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease, among other problems. One serious condition that diabetics are at risk of developing may first present with symptoms that seem anything but alarming—simple leg cramps.
A Possible Sign of Peripheral Artery Disease a.k.a. PAD
If your legs feel tired and painful or cramp when you’re climbing stairs or walking, you might just take that as a sign of aging, or that you’re out of shape. In diabetics, especially those over 50 or who have Type 2 diabetes, those symptoms may be signs of peripheral artery disease (PAD). In PAD, the arteries in the limbs are narrowed or blocked by fatty deposits called plaques. While it can also affect the arms, PAD is more common in the legs, and often both legs are affected at the same time.
PAD reduces blood flow to the feet, making it harder for the body to heal injuries and fight infection. This is particularly dangerous to diabetics because diabetes also increases the risk of developing peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) that can cause numbness in the legs and feet. That means a minor wound such as a nick, blister, or ingrown toenail can go unnoticed. When PAD and neuropathy are combined, the risk of a neglected injury getting worse and becoming severely infected increases dramatically. In the worst cases, this can lead to gangrene and amputation.
Symptoms of Peripheral Artery Disease
While it is possible to have PAD with no symptoms, especially if you know you suffer from neuropathy, leg pain or discomfort is a classic sign. This may not be actual cramping, but rather a feeling of tiredness or heaviness usually felt in the calves. Leg pain associated with PAD tends to increase during walking or other physical activity involving the legs, as your circulation fails to keep up with increased demand, and then fades away as you rest. This is known as claudication. As the disease progresses, however, you may experience pain when you’re resting, or to a degree that limits normal activities.
Other symptoms associated with PAD include cold feet (due to reduced blood flow), pale or bluish feet, poor toenail growth, decreased hair growth on your legs or toes, and sores that take a long time to heal (longer than 2 to 3 months). If you’re experiencing any of these signs, even if they seem subtle or don’t interfere with your daily activities, and you have diabetes, you should discuss them with a health care provider immediately. The progression of PAD can be slowed and potential complications treated, but early intervention is best.
Screening and Treatment for Peripheral Artery Disease
If a general practitioner has determined you’re at risk for PAD by evaluating your physical symptoms, you will likely be referred to a vascular specialist who can perform testing to pinpoint the extent and location of artery blockage. Lifestyle changes such as lowering cholesterol and blood pressure, quitting smoking, maintaining good blood sugar control, and staying active can help keep PAD in check. If you’re experiencing severe blockages, however, surgical intervention may be necessary. Possible procedures include angioplasty to open blocked arteries, removing arterial plaques (atherectomy), or placing stents to improve blood flow.
Specialized Peripheral Artery Disease Care
At the Vein & Fibroid Treatment Center, board-certified vascular and interventional radiologist Dr. Omar Saleh specializes in the treatment of venous and arterial disease. For patients with PAD, he creates a comprehensive treatment plan including lifestyle changes and medical intervention to preserve the quality of life and slow the progress of the disease. His minimally invasive treatments for arteries blocked by PAD help his patients avoid major surgery while restoring critical blood flow to avert life-changing complications and premature amputations. To learn more about treating peripheral artery disease or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Saleh, contact the Vein & Fibroid Treatment Center here.