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Living with peripheral vascular disease
You’re out jogging, perhaps playing a game of tennis, when you suddenly feel painful cramping in your legs. Concerned, you stop what you’re doing and the pain goes away. So does your concern.

Not so fast. The symptoms you just experienced could mean you have peripheral vascular disease or PVD. And if you don’t make changes to your lifestyle, you could develop blockages in key arteries, possibly leading to gangrene and even amputation of affected limbs.

PVD occurs in the blood vessels of the extremities: feet, legs, lower abdomen, arms, neck or head. The body relies on these vessels to supply oxygen-rich blood from the heart and remove waste products from cells. The narrowing or hardening of these blood vessels inhibits normal blood flow, causing circulation problems.

Most people with PVD never know they have circulation problems until they engage in physical activity. This is because the demands on the circulatory system are greater. Reduced blood flow causes cramping or fatigue in the legs or buttocks. It subsides only when physical activity stops.

The risk factors for PVD are the same as those for heart disease:
• Family history of heart disease
• Elevated cholesterol
• High blood pressure
• Smoking
• Diabetes
• Poor diet
• Obesity
• Lack of exercise

“Some people have a higher propensity for PVD, including African-Americans and men in general. Also, six percent of Americans over age 70 have PVD,“ says Palmetto Health Heart Hospital general surgeon Dr. Chad Rubin. “While there are certain risk factors you can’t control, simple lifestyle changes can help avoid or minimize the effects of PVD.”

Muscle cramping due to inadequate blood flow during physical activity is often the first sign of PVD. Usually the pain is concentrated in the calves or buttocks. If caught in this early stage, PVD can be managed through smoking cessation, a healthy diet and exercise. If not controlled, PVD can be debilitating, leading to pain, gangrene, and ultimately amputation of the affected limb.

When the going gets rough, keep going, says Dr. Rubin. “I cannot overemphasize how crucial it is to work through the pain. For example, if you are walking and pain sets in, keep walking. When you think you cannot walk another step, take one more. Fighting through the pain will encourage other blood vessels to do the work, instead of depending on the affected vessels.”

There are other treatment options. Your physician may prescribe anticoagulants to prevent blood clots. Advanced PVD may require an angioplasty to dilate the narrowed arteries, the insertion of a stent to expand and lock the diseased artery into place, and, in the event of a severe blockage, bypass surgery.

“Usually we don’t have to go to such lengths in treatment. If PVD is caught early and you stop smoking, eat right and exercise regularly, you can live your life to the fullest,” Dr. Rubin says.