Too little blood flow to the legs and arms can cause pain, especially during exercise. Learn more about diagnosing and treating intermittent claudication.
Claudication is pain caused by too little blood flow to muscles during exercise. Most often this pain occurs in the legs after walking at a certain pace and for a certain amount of time — depending on the severity of the condition.
The condition is also called intermittent claudication because the pain usually isn't constant. It begins during exercise and ends with rest. As claudication worsens, however, the pain may occur during rest.
Claudication is technically a symptom of disease, most often peripheral artery disease, a narrowing of arteries in the limbs that restricts blood flow.
Treatments focus on lowering the risks of vascular disease, reducing pain, increasing mobility and preventing damage to tissues.
Claudication is pain in the legs or arms that occurs while walking or using the arms. The pain is caused by too little blood flow to the legs or arms. Claudication is usually a symptom of peripheral artery disease, in which the arteries that supply blood to the arms or legs, usually the legs, are narrowed. The narrowing is usually due to a buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) on the artery walls.
Claudication refers to muscle pain due to lack of oxygen that's triggered by activity and relieved by rest. Symptoms include the following:
The pain may become more severe over time. You may even start to have pain at rest.
Signs or symptoms of peripheral artery disease, usually in more-advanced stages, include:
Talk to your health care provider if you have pain in your legs or arms when you exercise. Claudication can lead to a cycle that results in worsening cardiovascular health. Pain may make exercise intolerable, and a lack of exercise results in poorer health.
Peripheral artery disease is a sign of poor cardiovascular health and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Other conditions involving the blood, nerves and bones can contribute to leg and arm pain during exercise. It's important to have a complete exam and appropriate tests to diagnose potential causes of pain.
Claudication is most often a symptom of peripheral artery disease. The peripheral arteries are the large vessels that deliver blood to the legs and arms.
Peripheral artery disease is damage to an artery that restricts the flow of blood in an arm or leg (a limb). When you're at rest, the limited blood flow is generally enough. When you're active, however, the muscles aren't getting enough oxygen and nutrients to work well and remain healthy.
Damage to peripheral arteries is usually caused by atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on the artery walls. This buildup is called plaque. The plaque can cause the arteries to narrow, blocking blood flow. The plaque can also burst, leading to a blood clot.
If there's too much cholesterol in the blood, the cholesterol and other substances may form deposits (plaques) that collect on artery walls. Plaques can cause an artery to become narrowed or blocked. If a plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form. Plaques and blood clots can reduce blood flow through an artery.
Potential risk factors for peripheral artery disease and claudication include:
Claudication is generally considered a warning of significant atherosclerosis, indicating an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Other complications of peripheral artery disease due to atherosclerosis include:
The best way to prevent claudication is to maintain a healthy lifestyle and control certain medical conditions. That means:
Claudication may go undiagnosed because many people consider the pain to be an unwelcome but typical part of aging. Some people simply reduce their activity level to avoid the pain.
A diagnosis of claudication and peripheral artery disease is based on a review of symptoms, a physical exam, evaluation of the skin on the limbs, and tests to check blood flow.
Some common tests used to diagnose claudication may include:
The goals of treating claudication and peripheral artery disease are to reduce pain and manage the risk factors that contribute to heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease.
Exercise is an important part of claudication treatment. Exercise reduces pain, increases exercise duration, improves vascular health in the affected limbs, and contributes to weight management and an overall improvement in quality of life.
Recommended walking programs include:
Supervised exercise is recommended for beginning the treatment, but long-term exercise at home is important for ongoing management of claudication.
Your health care provider may prescribe one or more medications to control pain and manage risk factors for cardiovascular disease. For example, medications may be used to manage the following:
Talk to your doctor about medications or supplements that you shouldn't take with your prescribed treatment.
When peripheral artery disease is severe and other treatments don't work, surgery may be required. Options include:
A healthy lifestyle can help improve treatment outcomes and lower risks associated with claudication and peripheral artery disease. Recommended lifestyle changes include the following:
Learning all you can about what's causing your claudication may help you better manage the condition.
Some people also find it helpful to talk with other people who are going through similar experiences. In a support group, you may find encouragement, advice, and maybe even an exercise partner or two. Ask your health care provider if there are any support groups in your area.
You're likely to start by seeing your health care provider. You may be referred to a doctor trained in heart diseases (cardiologist) or a blood vessel (vascular) surgeon.
To make the best of your appointment time, be prepared to answer the following questions:
Your health care provider may ask about the medications you take, including supplements and drugs bought without a prescription. Before your appointment, write down each drug's name, dosage, reason for taking it and the name of the prescribing provider. Bring the list with you to your appointment.
Other strategies to help you use your appointment time well include the following: