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Exercise in unhealthy individuals can cause leg pain and cramping called intermittent claudication. Rather than a disease unto itself, this pain is symptomatic of Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). Intermittent claudication indicates problems with circulation in arteries that might lead to serious health conditions like heart disease.
In those with atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, cholesterol builds up in blood vessels and coats the walls with plaque. This occurs in all arteries as we age, but especially affects extremities. The restricted blood flow causes numerous health problems. During increased activities, like walking or playing sports, narrow blood vessels fail to supply enough oxygenated blood to keep muscles active, so they cramp up and cause shooting pains. If the activity is ceased, and muscles relax, the pain will gradually subside and disappear.
A doctor can diagnose Peripheral Artery Disease in those with intermittent claudication. They will conduct tests that measure your blood pressure during rest and exercise, as well as assessing your risk for heart disease. They can rule out other causes such as arthritis. Those with diabetes, high blood pressure, or those that smoke or drink are already at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Taken from a Latin word meaning "to limp," intermittent claudication is often the first visible sign of declining artery health. Individuals over 50 years old must take special care as between 4-10% suffer from PAD.
Lifestyle changes, in combination with medication and supplements, can help to prevent or ease the pain of intermittent claudication. Of course, a balanced diet low in cholesterol reduces the risk for atherosclerosis. Alcohol and tobacco consumption also speeds the damage to your arteries. Mild, low-impact exercise, like walking on flat ground, strengthens muscles and increases circulation. Dietary supplements, especially Vitamin E, B, and C, improve the discomfort of intermittent claudication as well. For those with more acute pain, there are several medications available that reduce cramping and help prevent a more serious problem such as heart attack or stroke.