Intermittent Claudication

Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on February 11, 2024
3 min read

Claudication is the pain you feel when your leg muscles don’t get enough blood while you exercise. It’s also known as intermittent claudication.

It is a sign of atherosclerosis, which means plaque has built up in the arteries in your legs and is causing blockages. This makes it harder for blood to get through.

It can be a serious health risk. If you have it in your legs, you also can have it in your heart, so it's important to see your doctor.

During exercise, when your muscles need more blood, intermittent claudication can cause problems including:

  • Cramping
  • Numbness
  • Pain
  • Tingling
  • Weakness

You usually feel these symptoms in your legs, from your feet up to your buttocks. It gets better or goes away when you stop moving.

Other symptoms related to intermittent claudication include:

  • An aching or burning feeling
  • Blotchy or shiny skin on your leg or foot
  • Cold feet
  • Foot sores
  • Hair loss on your leg
  • Impotence in men
  • Weak arms or legs

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is the most common cause of claudication. PAD is when your arteries, especially the ones in your legs, are narrowed or blocked because of plaque buildup.

Other conditions that can cause claudication include:

  • A bulging artery (aneurysm) in your belly or leg
  • Damaged nerves (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Narrowed spinal canal (spinal stenosis)

You’re at higher risk of getting claudication if you:

  • Are a man over age 55 or a woman over age 60
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Don’t exercise regularly
  • Have a family history of claudication or certain kinds of heart disease, such as atherosclerosis or peripheral artery disease
  • Have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol
  • Smoke

Over time, you might feel pain in your legs even when you’re not exercising. Cuts and sores on your legs might not heal like they should if you have PAD. If they become infected, you might get gangrene. That could result in you losing a leg.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, lifestyle, and family history. A few tests can help find out whether you have intermittent claudication:

  • Ankle-brachial index (ABI). This test compares the blood pressure in your ankle with 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 whether there's a blockage and, if so, how big.

Depending on your lifestyle, you might need to make changes, such as:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Lose extra weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise. A regular walking routine can improve your blood flow.

It's important to control any related conditions like high blood pressurehigh cholesterol, or diabetes.

You might need other treatments, including:

  • Medications to improve your blood flow or lower your risk of blood clots.
  • Surgery to clear a blood vessel that’s severely clogged. Your doctor may use angioplasty (in which they put a thin tube into your blood vessel to widen it) or a stent (in which they prop open a narrowed vessel with a tube).
  • Bypass surgery if other options won’t work. Your doctor will use another vessel from your body to go around the blocked area.

Even after surgery, your blood vessel can clog again. That's especially likely if you don't follow your doctor's advice about lifestyle changes or medication.

Lifestyle changes are the best way to cut your risk of claudication. Try these steps:

  • Don’t eat foods with saturated fats.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco.
  • Get more physical activity.
  • Get your cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure to healthy levels.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.