Patient stories

Leg pain slowing you down? Don't ignore peripheral artery disease

Bernel Bayliss is no stranger to heart disease. He had heart bypass surgery at age 51 and can track the disease through several generations of his family. That includes both parents and several of his siblings.

But heart disease is not his only health concern. Bayliss has learned that the same disease process that causes chest pain and can lead to a heart attack can cause leg pain and lead to limb loss.

When arteries in the heart are blocked, it's called coronary artery disease. When other arteries are blocked, such as those in the legs, it's called peripheral artery disease, or PAD.

PAD under-recognized

"Unfortunately, most people recognize the symptoms only when they affect the heart," said William McMillan, MD, a vascular surgeon with Metropolitan Heart and Vascular Institute. "They don't realize that if they have leg pain, there may be a problem with circulation in the legs."

Symptoms of PAD include aching, heaviness or cramping in the calf, thigh or hip that occurs with walking and improves after resting a few minutes. If the blockage is severe, there may be pain even when at rest. Without adequate blood flow, tissue damage may occur. In addition, PAD may signal circulation problems in other areas of the body.

"Because many people attribute the leg pain to getting older or weaker, PAD is probably undertreated," said Thomas Biggs, MD, medical director of United Vascular Clinic. "It's important to treat PAD for the health of the legs, heart and brain."

Risk factors

Risk factors for PAD include a family history of heart disease, smoking, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

"Of the risk factors that we can change, smoking has the most significant impact," said Alexander Tretinyak, MD, a vascular surgeon at the Minneapolis Heart Institute® at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

A walking program can help the body build blood flow through other arteries.

"It's like when traffic is stopped on the freeway. You get off the freeway and take a side street. It may not be the most efficient route, but it will get you there," said Tretinyak. "When PAD occurs gradually, our bodies create these 'side streets,' and symptoms may improve without surgery or other procedures."

Better quality of life

In 2006, Biggs treated Bayliss' PAD by inserting small tubes called stents in the blocked arteries of both legs. But last year, Bayliss' symptoms returned.

A large blockage in the left leg was particularly severe, affecting the main artery between the groin and the knee. Biggs was able to open the artery and place a stent to keep it open.

"I've always received excellent care from Dr. Biggs and United Vascular Clinic," Bayliss said. "They've greatly improved my quality of life."

bernel bayliss

Bernel Bayliss says, "I've always received excellent care from Dr. Biggs and United Vascular Clinic. They've greatly improved my quality of life."