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Don't Ignore Leg Cramps!

By : Mark Rosenberg, MD 


Your body is a miraculous machine! Think about all the systems that have to work together to keep you feeling and functioning at your highest level. As an anti-aging doctor I try to prevent health problems from occurring in my patients by taking a pro-active approach to their well being. One area of particular concern and importance to me is circulation.

I am often asked why the circulation of blood is so important to our bodies. First and foremost, blood carries oxygen and other nutrients that your body needs to function properly. When blood can't reach certain places for any reason, it increases the chance of developing serious health problems.

Let's take a look at a few of the risks involved when circulation slows down.

  • Heart attacks and stroke are two of the most common and dangerous consequences of poor circulation. When arteries become blocked and oxygen cannot reach major organs in the body, death may result.
  • Healing is based on good circulation and can improve your body's response to infection. When the healing process is delayed the risk of complications increases.
  • Tingling and numbness in your hands and feet is a sign that you're not getting enough blood to your extremities. You may also have a hard time keeping your toes and fingers warm in cold weather.
  • Shortness of breath, memory and concentration problems may also be associated with poor circulation.

What is Claudication?

In addition to the risks mentioned above, there is one circulation problem that is of particular interest to me and affects many of my patients. It is known as claudication; a condition that causes pain during exercise. The symptoms are simple - a distinct pain or cramping in your calf when you walk. Most people chalk it up to getting older and just decide that their walking days are over. Instead of hanging up those tennis shoes you should head straight to your doctor's office to find out if your symptoms might be related to peripheral arterial disease.

Claudication is actually a form of atherosclerosis that develops in your arteries and affects your arms and legs. When you suffer peripheral arterial disease, your arteries get clogged with clumps of fat, cholesterol and other material called plaques that make arteries so narrow that blood only trickles through. You experience pain in the muscles of your legs, especially your calves. It is this pain that is known as claudication and is actually a symptom that may also occur in the arteries of your arms.

Claudication is seen in older adults, usually over 50 and is worsened by cold temperatures or medications that reduce blood flow or restrict blood vessels. Claudication has two very distinct features:

1. Pain that is brought on by exercise such as walking that creates a need for getting extra oxygen to your muscles. Because the arteries are narrowed, oxygen carrying blood cannot get to your legs which cause aching pain in the location of the artery damage.

2. Pain that is intermittent means that it comes and goes. It starts to hurt shortly after you begin to exercise when the oxygen lessens. The more intense the exercise the worse the pain becomes because it puts more demand on your muscles than simply taking a walk.

Depending on the severity of your condition you may continue to experience pain even when you are resting. Your toes may feel cold or show a bluish tinge. If left untreated claudication can interfere with your quality of life and limit your participation in social and leisure activities.

Unfortunately, claudication often goes undiagnosed. Many people believe that the pain they are feeling is just a function of aging and don't seek medical attention. If you are asking yourself whether your pain could possibly be claudication and not another condition, its best to see your doctor. A diagnosis will be based on your symptoms, medical history, and physical exam. Other tests may include blood pressure checks in your ankles and arms, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and X-ray imaging with dye to reflect damage to your blood vessels.

A Healthier Lifestyle Can Make a Difference

Usually the plaques that have damaged your arteries are due to an unhealthy lifestyle. As part of a treatment plan for my patients, I recommend exchanging some unhealthy habits for those that are healthier in nature. Here are some examples:

  • Quit smoking - this is one of the worst habits that contribute to the development of peripheral arterial disease. Smoking along with second hand smoke increases your likelihood of death due to the disease.
  • Exercise - this actually can aid your condition by conditioning your muscles to use oxygen more efficiently. Even if your muscles receive less oxygen they can learn to better use it to promote growth of new, healthy blood vessels.
  • Lower your cholesterol - along with exercise, and a healthy diet you can control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels that ultimately contribute to artherosclerosis.
  • Herbs show potential - According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, some herbs also show potential in helping to improve blood circulation. These herbs include lavender, hawthorn, and rosemary. Always consult your physician before using any type of herbal or alternative treatments for your medical conditions.

Sometimes symptoms of claudication persist even after making changes to your lifestyle. In that case there are certain medications available to improve circulation by decreasing blood clotting, opening arteries and lowering cholesterol. There are other procedures offered to clear blocked arteries including angioplasty and thrombolytic therapy.

Most importantly, don't assume your leg pain is just part of growing old. Claudication is serious and demands your attention. Your health is at stake, don't ignore your symptoms! You can be back on your feet and enjoying life with healthy lifestyle changes and other treatment options available to you.