By Laura Kaae
Killeen Daily Herald
It's National Heart Month, and we don't just mean touchy-feely valentine love month, either.
February marks the annual time of year people are encouraged to increase their heart health awareness, and medical professionals spread prevention techniques to reduce cardiovascular problems.
Many people use the terms cardiovascular disease and heart disease interchangeably, when in fact what we consider "heart disease" often affects more parts of the body than the heart.
Although many people are familiar with diseases that fall under the umbrella of heart disease (such as an aneurysm , cardiomyopathy or heart attack), few have hear of peripheral arterial disease, a form of atherosclerosis that occurs anywhere in the body outside of the heart.
According to information provided by Austin Heart Hospital, some 12 million Americans have PAD, and an estimated 40 percent of patients with coronary artery disease also have PAD.
Dr. Randy McCollough, a cardiologist with Austin Heart Hospital who practices at the Austin Heart Killeen Clinic, said PAD often results when the arteries that supply blood to limbs (most frequently in legs, but occasionally in arms) becomes blocked.
"People experience pain or cramping or a heavy feeling in their legs that doesn't go away when they walk," he said.
Because few people associate pain in legs with problems elsewhere in the body, especially the heart, McCollough said in the past few months the hospital has been using a questionnaire to ask patients about pain in their legs. Doctors want to know if they pain gets better with rest and if it goes away when the patient walks.
"That helps us tell the difference between PAD and a pinched nerve," he said, noting that in patients with PAD, pain doesn't go away with walking but usually subsides with rest.
According to the American Heart Association, older people may confuse arthritis or just "stiffness" with PAD. However, PAD pain occurs in the muscles, not the joints.
McCollough had first-hand experience with a patient who mistook her PAD symptoms for just getting older – his mother.
"She was a classic example," he said. "She used to go walking, and I noticed she had stopped going for walks. When I asked her why, she said her legs hurt when she would walk. That's when the big red flag goes up."
About half of the patients he sees need to be treated with a procedure such as a bypass surgery or with a stent, he said. Fortunately, lifestyle changes can halt the progression of the disease.
And, McCollough said, in almost all instances, PAD can be prevented.
Smoking cessation, lowering cholesterol, exercise, maintaining a healthy diet and managing risk factors for diabetes and high blood pressure all help reduce risk for PAD.
The commitment to exercise, McCollough said, needs to be more than just, "Oh, yeah, I walk a lot during the day around the office."
"We say you should have 30 to 45 minutes of continuous exercise four to five times a week," he said.
The best advice McCollough said he has is to ask a physician if you're having leg symptoms such as pain or cramping when walking.
"Be sure to talk to your doctor," he said. "You never know. It may save your life."
Contact Laura Kaae at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7464