Do painful cramps shoot through your legs and backside when you climb stairs, practice your tennis serve, or run after your kids or grandkids? If so, it could be intermittent claudication. It happens when the muscles in your legs don't get enough blood when you exercise.
This is a sign of atherosclerosis -- plaque has built up in the arteries in your legs and is causing blockages. This makes it harder for blood to get through and can be serious. If you have this in your legs, you also can have it in your heart, so it's important to see your doctor.
It's more common in older adults and people who smoke; carry extra weight; don't exercise regularly; or have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. If claudication or certain kinds of heart disease run in your family, you have a greater chance of having it.
During exercise, when your muscles need more blood, intermittent claudication can cause pain, cramping, numbness, tingling, or weakness.
You might notice other symptoms related to intermittent claudication. The skin on your leg or foot might look shiny or blotchy. The hair on your leg may fall off, and your feet may develop sores or feel cold all the time. Men with claudication can become impotent.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, lifestyle, and family history. A few tests can help find out if you have intermittent claudication:
- Ankle-arm index: Also known as an ankle-brachial index, or ABI, this test compares the blood pressure in your ankle to the blood pressure in your arm. If the pressure in your leg is much lower than in your arm, you might have clogged or blocked arteries.
- Ultrasound: This test bounces sound waves off your red blood cells to find out how fast the blood is moving in your vessels and in what direction.
- Other imaging tests: An MRA (magnetic resonance angiography) or CTA (computed tomography angiography) scan can give your doctor a picture of your blood vessels to show if there's a blockage and, if so, how big it is.
Depending on your lifestyle, you might need to make a few changes, such as:
A regular walking routine can improve your blood flow without the pain of more intense exercise.
It's also important to control any related conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. Your doctor also may prescribe medications to improve your blood flow or lower your risk of blood clots.
If you have a blood vessel that's severely clogged, you may need surgery to clear it. The doctor may use angioplasty (a thin tube is put into the blood vessel to widen it) or a stent (a coil props open the narrowed vessel and is left in place permanently).
If the artery can't be treated with angioplasty or a stent, your doctor may recommend bypass surgery. The surgeon will use another vessel from your body to go around the blocked area.
Even after surgery, the blood vessel can clog again. That's especially likely if you don't follow your doctor's advice about lifestyle changes or medication.