How does the circulatory system work?

  • Heart: Your heart is the pump for your circulatory system. It is an organ with special muscle cells that enable it to pump blood (red blood cells with nutrients and oxygen) throughout your body.
  • Arteries: The arteries and veins are the roadways through which blood is transported to all parts of your body. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Veins return the blood to the heart after the oxygen has been used.
  • Oxygen: Your body needs oxygen in order to function. When you walk, your leg muscles need increased amounts of oxygen in order to do their work. If the arteries in your lower body are able to carry blood unimpeded to your muscles, then you are able to walk comfortably.

If you have blockages in your leg arteries or in the arteries leading to the legs, you may not be able to get enough oxygen-rich blood down to your legs. The decrease in oxygen to your legs will often result in claudication.

What is claudication?

Claudication is a term used to describe discomfort felt in leg muscles when you walk due to a circulation problem in your legs. Claudication can be described as a decrease in blood flow to the muscles to meet the demand of the working muscle.

What are the symptoms of claudication?

Symptoms may occur in one or both legs and are most often described as cramps, a burning sensation, achy or a feeling of heaviness in the leg.

The most common place to feel cramping is in the calf muscle, although cramping may also be felt in the thigh or buttock.

Typically, people with claudication are able to walk a certain distance, perhaps three blocks, before the cramping becomes so severe they must stop and rest. When they rest until the pain goes away, they may walk exactly the same distance again before having to stop and rest. The distance a person is able to walk varies with the severity of the blockages in the arteries. Most people with claudication experience no leg discomfort when they are at rest.

What causes arteries to become blocked?

Arterial blockage, or atherosclerosis, is caused by a build up of fatty deposits on the inside of the arteries. This fatty build-up narrows an artery, which reduces the amount of blood flow through the vessel.

How can I tell if I have arterial blockages?

Tell your physician about your symptoms. After your physician has spoken to you and has done a physical exam, you may need to have some testing done.

How is claudication diagnosed?

There are relatively simple tests that can be performed to determine whether your arterial blood flow is normal.

  • Ankle-brachial index: During this test, the technologist will place blood pressure cuffs at several points along your legs and take the blood pressure using a Doppler. You may be asked to walk on a treadmill, after which your ankle pressures will be taken again to determine if it decreased when you walked.
  • Ultrasound scan: During an ultrasound scan, speed of blood flow and direction is measured.
  • Arteriogram: During an arteriogram, dye is injected into the arteries while X-rays are taken. The dye “lights up” the arteries, allowing the areas of blockage to be accurately pinpointed.

How is claudication treated?

With the information obtained from your diagnostic tests, your physician will be able to determine the best treatment plan and course of action to take for your particular situation. Whatever you and your doctor decide will be explained to you in full detail. This can include:

  • Cessation of smoking
  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Medication
  • Angioplasty
  • Bypass surgery

What are the risks?

There can be some risks involved with certain diagnostic procedures, but in most cases, they are relatively minor. Please ask your doctor to discuss the risks and benefits so that you are fully informed about any tests you may have.

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