Often when discussing pain in the leg we focus on muscles, bones, and nerves. However, another source of potential leg pain can come from other anatomical systems. Sometimes these are the veins in our legs. Our veins have 1 of the hardest jobs in our bodies. They are an essential part of our circulatory system and carry blood and oxygen to our furthest extremities.
When something goes wrong with part of the system, it can not only cause pain the region but long-term effects on our entire bodies. 2 vein conditions in particular can cause leg pain: deep vein thrombosis and peripheral artery disease.
What is deep vein thrombosis?
This condition is often discussed when talking about long, overseas flights and other forms of travel where our bodies remain largely inactive. The reason for this happens to be the actual cause behind deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT occurs when a large blood clot becomes lodged in a vein in an extremity, most commonly the leg. It usually occurs without any symptoms, but can cause some pain. Sitting for a long time, such as on an airplane, can cause DVT, though it is more common in individuals who already have a blood clotting disorder. The real concern with DVT is when the blood clot breaks free of where it is trapped and travels to the lungs where it can block blood flow and cause a pulmonary embolism.
According to the Mayo Clinic, over half of the cases of DVT occur without any symptoms, which is what can make this condition dangerous. When symptoms do occur, they are likely to include swelling in the ankle or foot of the affected leg, pain that feels like a cramp or Charley horse, a sensation of warmth in the area affected, and changes in skin color, such as increased paleness or a red or blue hue.
If deep vein thrombosis does cause a pulmonary embolism, affected individuals may experience unexpected trouble breathing, chest pain while breathing or coughing, dizziness, sweating, and coughing up of blood. Seek medical treatment immediately if any of these occur.
If you are preparing to be on a long flight or in the car for extended periods of time, you should plan ahead to allow for movement while you are in the air. Before boarding a plane, stretch your legs to encourage proper blood flow. Walk to the restroom as allowed during the flight or take a few moments to stand and walk the aisles. If you’re traveling by car, make frequent stops where you can get out and walk to stretch your legs to help your circulation.
If you are diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, it is important to know the available treatments. The goal is to eliminate the clot from getting any larger and to stop it from traveling to your lungs, thus causing a pulmonary embolism. Your doctor may suggest that you take a blood thinner medication. Usually these will be used in a controlled manner and not long-term. Compression stockings are also used as a treatment for deep vein thrombosis. At home you can exercise your calves, eat a diet low in vitamin K, and make lifestyle changes such as losing weight or quitting smoking.
What is peripheral artery disease?
Peripheral artery disease is a very common problem in the circulatory system where the arteries narrow and restrict blood flow to the extremities. It is most common in the legs where the restricted arteries can’t keep up with the demand for the blood flow as you move. This can lead to pain when walking. It is typically accompanied by fatty deposits throughout the body that restrict blood flow to essential organs such as the heart and brain. Smoking and poor exercise and eating habits are the largest contributors to this condition.
Most of the time peripheral artery disease has no physical symptoms but some patients experience pain when walking. The location of the pain will depend largely on which veins are being constricted, but it most commonly occurs in the calf. Other symptoms include painful cramping after walking or climbing stairs, numbness or weakness in the legs, sores on the feet that won’t heal, hair loss or slow hair growth on the legs, shiny skin, and either a weak or not noticeable pulse in the legs.
The highest risk factors for peripheral artery disease are obesity, smoking, and diabetes. High blood pressure or high cholesterol may also be indicators. It is most commonly seen in adults over the age of 50.
Most often peripheral artery disease can be counteracted by lifestyle changes such as a healthy diet, exercise, and not smoking. Medications that control cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar can help in some patients. For extreme cases, surgeries such as angioplasty or heart bypasses may be recommended.
Also, those with peripheral artery disease need to take special care of their feet to prevent infection. Wash and dry your feet and use moisturizer regularly to avoid cracking. However, don’t moisturize between the toes to prevent fungal infections. Wear shoes that fit well along with dry socks. Treat infections, such as athlete’s foot, right away. Never walk barefoot even in your own home and always be careful when trimming your toe nails. If you have been diagnosed with peripheral artery disease, you will need the supervision of a specialist to ensure you have no long-term repercussions from this condition.
If you are experiencing pain that may be related to either deep vein thrombosis or peripheral artery disease talk to your doctor about treatments, lifestyle changes, and other considerations. Since both of these conditions can lead to long-term issues with your lung or heart health, they should not be treated at home exclusively. Your doctor can help you make the right lifestyle changes to reverse the effects of these leg conditions.
Have you experienced pain in your legs that may be due to deep vein thrombosis or peripheral artery disease?
Image by Tony Alter via Flickr