Too little blood flow to your legs and arms can cause pain, especially during exercise. Learn more about diagnosing and treating this condition.
Claudication is pain caused by too little blood flow to muscles during exercise. Most often this pain occurs in the legs after walking at a certain pace and for a certain amount of time — depending on the severity of the condition.
The condition is also called intermittent claudication because the pain usually isn't constant. It begins during exercise and ends with rest. As claudication worsens, however, the pain may occur during rest.
Claudication is technically a symptom of disease, most often peripheral artery disease, a narrowing of arteries in the limbs that restricts blood flow.
Treatments focus on lowering the risks of vascular disease, reducing pain, increasing mobility and preventing damage to tissues.
Claudication refers to muscle pain due to lack of oxygen that's triggered by activity and relieved by rest. Symptoms include the following:
The pain may become more severe over time. You may even start to have pain at rest.
Signs or symptoms of peripheral artery disease, usually in more-advanced stages, include:
Talk to your doctor if you have pain in your legs or arms when you exercise. Claudication can lead to a cycle that results in worsening cardiovascular health. Pain may make exercise intolerable, and a lack of exercise results in poorer health.
Peripheral artery disease is a sign of poor cardiovascular health and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Other conditions involving the blood, nerves, and bones can contribute to leg and arm pain during exercise. It's important to have a complete exam and appropriate tests to diagnose potential causes of pain.
Claudication is most often a symptom of peripheral artery disease. The peripheral arteries are the large vessels that deliver blood to the network of vessels in your legs and arms.
Peripheral artery disease is damage to an artery that restricts the flow of blood in an arm or leg (a limb). When you're at rest, the limited blood flow is generally still enough. When you're active, however, the muscles aren't getting enough oxygen and nutrients to work well and remain healthy.
Damage to peripheral arteries is usually caused by atherosclerosis. This is the buildup of cholesterol and other fats, blood cells, and other cellular debris into abnormal structures (plaques) on the lining of an artery.
Plaques cause a narrowing and stiffening of the artery, limiting the flow of blood. If the plaques rupture, a blood clot can form, further reducing blood flow.
The risk factors for peripheral artery disease and claudication include the following:
Claudication is generally considered a warning of significant atherosclerosis in the circulatory system, indicating an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Additional complications of peripheral artery disease due to atherosclerosis include:
The best way to prevent claudication is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and control certain medical conditions. That means:
Claudication may go undiagnosed because many people consider the pain to be an unwelcome but typical part of aging. Some people simply reduce their activity level to avoid the pain.
A diagnosis of claudication and peripheral artery disease is based on a review of your symptoms, a physical exam, evaluation of the skin on your affected limbs, and tests to check blood flow.
Some common tests used to diagnose claudication may include:
The goals of treating claudication and peripheral artery disease are to reduce pain and manage the risk factors that contribute to vascular disease.
Exercise reduces pain, increases exercise duration, improves vascular health in the affected limbs, and contributes to weight management and an overall improvement in your quality of life.
Recommended walking programs include:
Supervised exercise is recommended for beginning the treatment, but long-term exercise at home is important for ongoing disease management.
Your doctor may prescribe one or more medications to control pain and manage risk factors for vascular disease. These include drugs to manage the following:
Talk to your doctor about over-the-counter medications, supplements or other medications that you shouldn't take with your prescribed treatment.
When peripheral artery disease is severe and other interventions do not work, surgery may be required. Options include:
A healthy lifestyle is essential for improving treatment outcomes and lowering risks associated with claudication and peripheral artery disease. Recommended lifestyle changes include the following:
Researchers have studied alternative treatments for claudication and peripheral artery including:
To date, these studies have produced negative, inconclusive or contradictory results. Talk to your doctor before starting any type of alternative to make sure it's safe for you.
It can be concerning to learn that the reason you're having pain is that your blood vessels are narrowing. Learning all you can about what's causing your claudication can put you in control, and you'll know exactly what steps to take to ease your pain.
Some people also find it helpful to talk with other people who are going through the same thing that they are. In a support group, you may find encouragement, advice, and maybe even an exercise partner or two. Ask your doctor if there are any support groups in your area.
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor. However, you may then be referred to a doctor trained in cardiovascular diseases (cardiologist) or a vascular surgeon.
To make the best of your appointment time, be prepared to answer the following questions:
You'll also be asked about the medications you take, including over-the-counter medications and supplements. Before your appointment, write down each drug's name, dosage, reason for taking it, and the name of the prescribing doctor. Bring the list with you to your appointment.
Other strategies to help you use your appointment time well include the following:
July 15th, 2021