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Peripheral Artery Disease in Women: Have you done your homework?

 By J. Douglas Overbeck, M.D.

Between 4 million and 5 million women in the United States have peripheral artery disease, or PAD, but few are diagnosed and even fewer receive adequate treatment. If left untreated, PAD can lead to other heart-related complications such as stroke or even amputation.

The American Heart Association is calling for greater efforts in identifying and diagnosing women at risk and even encouraging more women with PAD to be involved with related studies. University of Minnesota Medical School professor of medicine, epidemiology, and community health, Alan T. Hirsch, MD, says “the rate of death and the health-care costs associated with PAD are at least comparable to those of heart disease and stroke.” He goes on to say few people know that damage to the arteries in the legs can be as serious as the damage to the arteries that lead directly to the heart and brain. And that is why testing and awareness of PAD is so very important.

What is peripheral artery disease? PAD occurs when arteries that supply blood to the body’s extremities, usually the legs and pelvis, become narrowed or clogged with fatty plaque, restricting blood flow. Symptoms include claudication (a tight or squeezing pain in the calf, foot, thigh, or buttock that occurs during exercise such as walking), wounds that heal poorly, legs feeling cooler than arms, shiny skin on the legs, loss of hair on the legs, and decreased pulses in the feet.

In addition to causing pain and discomfort in the lower extremities, PAD is associated with other long-term health risks including heart attack and stroke. It is also proof that hardening of the arteries does not just happen in the heart, but throughout the body. Risk factors for PAD include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and having a family history of the condition. PAD affects men and women alike, but many with this disease do not have classic symptoms and thus, is dubbed a silent danger. Dr. Overbeck warns, “PAD is usually just the tip of the iceberg and is often accompanied by concomitant coronary and cerebrovascular disease. Making the diagnosis is the key to proper treatment and a better prognosis.”

But fear not! PAD can be easily diagnosed by your doctor using the ankle-brachial index (ABI). A handheld ultrasound probe is used to measure the blood pressure at your ankle and upper arm. The two should be roughly equal. If the pressure in your ankle is significantly less, peripheral artery disease is present. For severe peripheral artery disease, your doctor can perform an angiogram to see the exact location of the blockage.

How is it treated you ask? One of the best things you can do if you have PAD is to quit smoking. Quitting smoking decreases your risk of heart attack and stroke and will greatly help in alleviating PAD. Eating healthy foods, regular exercise, and lowering your cholesterol may also be prescribed to help control symptoms and reverse the blockage in your arteries. If you are diabetic, it is essential to carefully control your blood sugar. If these measures do not relieve symptoms within a few months, your doctor may prescribe a medication called cilostazol to help with the pain during walking. Sometimes an angioplasty is necessary to remove the blockage and in severe cases, amputation is required.

But it does not have to go that far. Get yourself tested! Tuscan Cardiovascular Center offers PAD testing and provides one-on-one guidance for keeping your heart healthy. Call us today to schedule your appointment at (972) 253-2505.