How to Get a Leg Up on Peripheral Artery Disease

Medically reviewed in September 2018

When a trip up the stairs triggers pain in your legs or hips, you might think you can’t exercise. If you have peripheral artery disease (PAD), however, the opposite is true. A new study shows that exercise will help you more than the standard surgical treatment. This confirms that the best remedy is a combination of exercise and surgery.

PAD occurs when fatty plaque deposits accumulate and narrow the arteries from your heart to other parts of your body, therefore limiting the flow of oxygen-rich blood. Often, people will feel PAD first in the leg or hip muscles while walking upstairs or uphill. PAD affects from 12 to 20 percent of Americans over the age of 60. To treat the disease, surgeons routinely place a stent, a tiny metal-mesh tube, inside a clogged artery to help keep it open.

Stents alone don’t, however, match the benefits of regular, supervised exercise, according to a team at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. The researchers followed 987 patients with intermittent leg pain for around a year, reporting their results in the April, 2017 issue of JACC: Cardiovascular Interventions. By the end of the study, patients who got the combination therapy–exercise and stenting–could go the furthest on the treadmill and were least likely to have had another surgery or amputation.

The Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program is proven to treat and even reverse atherosclerosis in the main heart arteries. I personally have seen it help participants who also suffer from PAD, which often comes with heart disease. Anyone with a history of coronary artery disease is at risk, but following the Ornish exercise prescription and other recommendations will help you stop symptoms from developing.

Identify the Problem
Most often the discomfort of PAD occurs when you’re active and stops when you rest, a phenomenon called “intermittent claudication.” You’ll typically know your triggers: walking on a flat surface might be fine, but walking up hill is always uncomfortable. You might get cramps, an ache or stabbing pain, or feel heaviness, weakness or numb in one or both legs. The sensation can hit your thighs, calves, feet, or buttocks.

Other signs include a weak pulse in your feet or legs, sores that heal slowly or stick, and pale or bluish skin in the affected limb. Your toenails could grow more slowly and you might have less hair on that leg.

Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
Not only does exercise build your overall fitness, it’s proven to lower blood pressure, strengthen muscles and improve blood flow to those muscles. To prevent PAD, work out at least three times a week. The more time you spend exercising the more benefits it will provide. You can go up to six sessions a week.

If you possibly can, walk on a treadmill or outside until you feel a pain, stop until it subsides, and then walk again.

Another approach is to go to a gym, walk on a treadmill for five to 10 minutes or until you experience symptoms, and then move to a cycle or recumbent stepper that allows you to sit. You goal is to continue to push your heart rate up. Swimming is also a wonderful exercise to add on when you can’t bear weight on your feet for long. lf possible, go back to the treadmill for another try.

Watching your diet, finding ways to destress every day, and enhancing social support will also help you fight PAD.

If you’re not in an Ornish program, your health insurance probably won’t cover supervised exercise for PAD, but don’t let that stop you: pay for a trainer, join a class, and be sure you work out. One thing is for sure—sitting around won’t help to prevent, treat or reverse PAD!

Get more ideas on training to prevent and manage PAD. Read The Best Exercise for Peripheral Artery Disease.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

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