Though peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a known risk factor for heart disea Many Patients with Peripheral Artery Disease, A Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease, Go Undiagnosed (dateline November 26, 2001) | Heart Disease News | Imaginis - The Women's Health & Wellness Resource Network

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Many Patients with Peripheral Artery Disease, A Risk Factor for Cardiovascular Disease, Go Undiagnosed (dateline November 26, 2001)

Though peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a known risk factor for heart disease and stroke, a new study finds that many patients are not diagnosed with the condition by their physicians. PAD occurs when arteries in the legs narrow due to hardened plaque build-up on the walls of the blood vessels. Because many patients do not exhibit the most common symptom of PAD (leg cramps while exercising), physicians often do not check for PAD. However, researchers insist that if PAD was more commonly diagnosed, more patients could take measures to help prevent heart disease and stroke.

Between eight and 12 million Americans have PAD, according to lead researcher Alan Hirsch, MD of the Minnesota Medical School. Claudication, or pain in the legs, is the main symptom of PAD, though many patients may not experience claudication or attribute the pain to other causes, such as aging. In addition to the legs, PAD can occur in the feet, kidneys, brain, or less commonly in the arms. The risk of PAD increases with age, and it is estimated that 20% of people over age 70 have the condition. PAD can also occur in younger people and is more common in those with diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. People who smoke and those who are obese are also more likely to develop PAD.

To conduct their study on PAD, Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues studied 6,979 patients at 350 primary care practices throughout the United States. Participants included those 70 years of age or older and those between the ages of 50 and 69 with a history of cigarette smoking or diabetes. Patients were asked about their medical history and then given a test called the ankle-brachial index (ABI), which measures blood pressure in the legs versus the arms to determine whether PAD is present. If blood pressure in the arms is significantly higher than in the legs, blood flow in arteries in the legs may be blocked, suggesting PAD.

After testing the patients, the researchers found that 1,865 patients had PAD. Over half of the patients with PAD alone were newly diagnosed by Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues. The researchers also discovered that 1,060 (16%) of the patients had both PAD and heart disease. Of these patients, 35% were first diagnosed by Dr. Hirsch’s team. These figures suggest that physicians often do not check for PAD even though it is a risk factor for heart disease.

According to Dr. Hirsch, if physician go by leg pain alone in deciding which patients should be tested for PAD, then 85% to 90% of patients with PAD will not be diagnosed with the condition. Early stages of claudication (leg pain) may be temporary in one or both legs and may only occur during exercise. Other symptoms of early claudication include aching, cramping, numbing, or weakness in the legs. As PAD progresses, pain can occur even at rest due to a severe lack of oxygen in the limbs from narrowed arteries.

Dr. Hirsch and his colleagues say that under-diagnosing PAD leads to a barrier in preventing heart disease and stroke. In an accompanying editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Kenneth Ouriel, MD agreed that PAD is an important risk factor for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which can lead to heart disease. Patients who are diagnosed with PAD should take measures to help treat the condition. Depending on the patient’s situation, these measures may include increased exercise (particularly walking), change in diet, antiplatelet drugs (to prevent blood clotting), or cholesterol-lowering drugs. In some cases, surgery may be necessary.

To help prevent PAD, physicians suggest that patients focus on lowering their risk of heart disease and stroke. This includes maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, maintaining healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels, not smoking, and preventing or controlling diabetes.

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