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What Your Feet Can Tell You About Your Heart Health

These subtle clues could be a sign of a clogged artery.

Foot and leg pain can be caused by many things. Maybe you’re sore from yesterday’s workout. Maybe your shoes just aren’t providing enough support. Or maybe it’s a symptom of chronic condition, like diabetes neuropathy or psoriatic arthritis. But did you know that foot pain may also be giving you hints about your heart health? 

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a condition where the peripheral arteries—”peripheral” meaning “away from the heart”—have become narrow or blocked. Peripheral arteries include those serving the legs, stomach, arms, and head.

Both PAD and coronary artery disease (CAD) are caused by a condition called atherosclerosis, which is when plaque—a combination of fats, cholesterol, and other substances—builds up and blocks or narrows critical arteries in the body. (Learn more about how cholesterol build-up affects the body.)

The Symptoms of PAD

The most common symptoms of PAD is pain, cramping, or fatigue in the legs and hips. These symptoms often show up while you’re walking or climbing stairs, and then go away with rest. For this reason, these symptoms may be overlooked or blamed on something else. 

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), PAD often goes undiagnosed by healthcare professionals. That’s why it’s important to know all the symptoms of PAD, so you can send yourself to the doctor if you suspect PAD. This is critical because untreated PAD increases your risk of CAD, heart attack, stroke, gangrene, or amputation. 

For other symptoms of PAD, pay attention to your feet. According to the AHA, here’s what to look out for: 

  • Leg pain that doesn’t go away after exercise

  • Foot or toe wounds that heal very slowly or don’t heal at all

  • Gangrene (dead tissue)

  • A lower body temperature in your lower leg or foot compared to the rest of your body

  • Poor toenail growth

  • Poor leg hair growth

Diagnosing + Treating PAD

If you suspect PAD, contact your doctor right away. He or she will perform diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your foot or leg pain. 

Along with a physical examination, your doctor may also perform an ankle-brachial index (ABI) test to check for weak pulses in the legs and feet. If the ABI is abnormal, your doctor may order further testing. 

If PAD is diagnosed, your doctor will then discuss treatment. Treatment for PAD often focuses on reducing symptoms and preventing the disease from getting worse with heart-healthy lifestyle modifications and medication. 

Duration: 1:22. Last Updated On: Sept. 27, 2019, 12:38 p.m.
Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: Sept. 26, 2019
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