If you’re like many of the patients we see at Vein Health Clinics, you have a hard time keeping track of all the different names and conditions associated with cardiovascular disease. Here’s a quick rundown on four problems that contribute to peripheral artery disease (PAD): cholesterol plaques, narrowed arteries, hardening of the arteries, and atherosclerosis.
PAD starts when cholesterol gets stuck on an artery wall. Little by little, more cholesterol accumulates in the same spot, and the arterial tissues get inflamed. Then other fats and calcium join the mix, adding to the size of the buildup and creating an area called plaque.
As the plaque continues to enlarge, the artery narrows. Over time, the calcium hardens the plaque, which causes hardening of the arteries. All of these problems together create the condition called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis causes peripheral artery disease (PAD)
When atherosclerosis forms in the arteries serving your arms, abdomen, head, and most commonly, your legs, you have PAD. The big problem with PAD is that you won’t have symptoms until the plaque blocks so much blood flow that your legs are deprived of vital oxygen and nutrients.
The earliest symptoms, leg pain, cramping, and leg fatigue, only occur when you’re walking or climbing stairs, then they go away when you relax. As a result, they’re easy to ignore or to write off as age-related problems.
Beyond leg pain, which can get severe, PAD leads to leg ulcers, and it can cause a heart attack or stroke when the plaque ruptures. That’s motivation for preventing PAD.
Lifestyle changes to prevent PAD
The most important thing to know about PAD is that it’s often preventable. You can significantly lower your risk for PAD if you change key lifestyle factors. Here are the four most important steps to take:
Smoking is the top risk factor for PAD. If you smoke, your chances of developing PAD are four times higher compared to nonsmokers. Smoking damages your arteries, creating rough spots that invite cholesterol to stick to the arterial wall. The chemicals inhaled in cigarette smoke can increase your blood pressure and raise your bad cholesterol, two changes that contribute to PAD.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with PAD, smoking just one or two cigarettes daily may interfere with your treatment. And if you smoke and have diabetes, your risk for PAD skyrockets. When you need help to stop smoking, talk with us. We may prescribe or recommend medications or help you find a cessation program for ongoing support.
As your weight goes up, so does your risk for PAD and critical leg ischemia, which occurs when the arteries are severely blocked due to PAD. We realize that even under the best of circumstances it can be hard to lose weight, and it’s especially hard when you can’t exercise due to leg pain. We’re here to give you some guidelines and to recommend a physical therapist, nutritionist, or weight-loss program.
Eat a heart-healthy diet and watch your calories
The foods you eat have a powerful impact on your risk for PAD. For starters, if you need to lose weight, you must limit your calories while eating foods that provide all the nutrients you need.
Your dietary choices are also essential tools for preventing or managing chronic health conditions that make you more likely to develop PAD, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
A heart-healthy eating plan is based on:
- Reducing sodium (salt), saturated fats, and trans fats
- Limiting or eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets
- Eating more foods that are high in potassium, fiber, protein, calcium, and magnesium
- Eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains
- Using polyunsaturated and monounsaturated vegetable oils
- Getting protein from poultry, fish, beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy products
In many cases, a diet like this can lower blood pressure and cholesterol so you don’t need to go on medications.
Engage in regular exercise
Physical activity is directly related to health benefits that lower your risk for PAD. Exercise helps to:
- Improve the health of blood vessels
- Lower cholesterol
- Lower blood pressure
- Control blood sugar
- Support weight loss
Regular exercise can help prevent atherosclerosis and PAD. And if you’re diagnosed with PAD, exercise is an important part of your treatment.
Our team at Vein Health Clinics is available to help you make lifestyle changes to prevent PAD. For information and ongoing support, call one of our offices in Oviedo, Apopka, or Winter Haven, Florida, or schedule an appointment online.