Health Library

Categories > Heart Health > Heart disease: Other heart conditions

You needn’t put up with painful leg cramps
Walk away the pain
The way to walk

Pain-relieving options
Pain-relieving options

If a walking program doesn’t offer relief, talk to your doctor about these alternatives:

  • Aspirin therapy. Studies suggest that a low-dose aspirin (up to 325 milligrams) taken every other day can ease the problem.
  • Prescription medication. Drugs such as pentoxifylline and cilostazol make it easier for blood to flow through narrowed vessels.
  • Surgery. Options include angioplasty, in which a balloon catheter dilates the blocked artery; atherectomy, in which the plaque itself is scraped from the artery wall; and arterial surgery, in which the blocked artery is replaced with a clean vessel or tube.

Preventing claudication
Preventing claudication

While claudication can be treated, it is a very serious symptom. It’s quite likely, in fact, that a person with clogged leg arteries also has clogged coronary arteries.

By adopting these preventive measures, you’ll not only keep claudication at bay but do your heart good, too:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Keep blood cholesterol at a desirable level.
  • Bring down high blood pressure.
  • Control diabetes.

When cholesterol-laden plaque clogs the arteries of the heart, the stage is set for a heart attack. But did you know that when plaque builds up in the arteries of your legs, claudication—cramps that make it difficult to walk even short distances—is the likely outcome? Claudication is the most common symptom of peripheral vascular disease, or the poor circulation that results when blocked arteries hamper the flow of oxygen-rich blood. People whose leg muscles are starved of that nourishment will start to feel discomfort—be it fatigue, aches or vise-like cramps—while walking, climbing the stairs or doing some other activity. With a few minutes of rest, however, the pain usually goes away (which is why the condition is also called “intermittent claudication”).

Walk away the pain

Ironically, a regular walking program—30 minutes a day, for example—is the best therapy for the condition. Here’s why:

  • Walking trains the muscles to get the most oxygen and nutrients it can from the reduced blood flow.
  • Walking promotes the development of collateral vessels, nature’s way of compensating for peripheral vascular disease. Collateral vessels act as a sort of bypass system, carrying blood around the clogged arteries to the oxygen-starved muscles.
  • Walking can eliminate or delay the need for surgery.

The way to walk

“But I can’t even walk a block without pain, let alone 30 minutes!” you may be thinking. The solution is simple: Walk just three-quarters of a block and rest for a moment, giving oxygen a chance to reach your muscles. Repeat the process until you meet your goal. Test yourself each week to see if you can walk a bit further; you should see a noticeable improvement within weeks.