We may be familiar with heart blockages, but the condition that clogs our heart artery can show up almost anywhere in the body. Millions of people have it in their legs. They may not know it, but it could be putting their lives at risk.
It may be the most common disease you’ve never heard of. Peripheral artery disease, or PAD for short. It affects up to 12 million Americans. Similar to blockages in the heart, people can also develop plaque buildup in the leg artery, which diminishes blood flow.
“When they don’t have enough blood going to their leg, they have pain in the beginning. And much worse, they can have even an ulcer and then it can go all the way to the gangrene,” says Dr. Moutta BenMaamer, a vascular surgeon on the medical staff of Lee Memorial Health System.
One in twenty people over age fifty have some degree of PAD. There is some heredity involved, but many times its severity is linked to lifestyle.
“Tobacco and the smoking is the most important factor, high blood pressure is a big risk factor, high cholesterol, people who are not very active - they will develop plaque more than others,” says Dr. BenMaamer.
Whenever someone has cholesterol building in the leg, they tend to have it other places as well. It puts them at higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
“The leg is like the tip of the iceberg, when we see something in the leg usually we have to make sure they don’t have problems in the coronary vessel, the vessel of the heart. We have to make sure they don’t have a problem with the vessel going to their brain in the carotid vessels,” says Dr. BenMaamer.
Serious blockages require surgery, which is often performed endovascularly by threading a needle into the blockage.
“We start by putting the angioplasty, sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes that’s not enough, so we have to hold that opening with a stent,” says Dr. BenMaamer.
Addressing leg pain may be the first step in diagnosing and treating this silent disease.