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Intermittent claudication

Intermittent claudication is a pain that can feel like a muscle cramp (especially in the calf area).

It's brought on by exercise or physical activity such as walking and is caused by poor blood flow to your muscles.

The pain should get better after resting for a few minutes. It usually affects one leg but it can affect both.

Intermittent claudication is caused by a narrowing or blockage of your arteries due to atherosclerosis. This reduces the blood flow in your leg. It means that the extra blood needed when you exercise can't reach your muscles. When muscles get short of blood they start to seize up or cramp, causing tightness and pain.

If you have intermittent claudication, the arteries supplying blood to your heart and brain are also likely to have narrowing. This means you're more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Being diagnosed with intermittent claudication is an opportunity to change your lifestyle and use other therapies to help stop this happening.

How is intermittent claudication diagnosed?

To diagnose intermittent claudication, your GP will ask you questions about your pain and about how far you can walk. They will also examine the pulses in your leg, and look at the leg's skin colour and temperature.

How is intermittent claudication treated?

Most cases of intermittent claudication don't get worse for many years. Treatment options include walking therapy, reducing your risk factors, medication and surgery.

Walking therapy

Walking therapy can be as good for intermittent claudication as surgery. As well as helping you keep active, walking helps small new blood vessels grow that improve the blood flow in your legs.

You should walk for at least one hour, three times a week. Within the hour, you can stop and rest as often as you need to. If you get a pain in your leg while walking, stop and rest until it goes away.

If you feel embarrassed stopping and starting while walking on the street, you could try walking in a shopping mall.

Reducing your risk factors

You can’t control all risk factors, but lifestyle changes can help you lower some risks. This means:

Taking medication

You're likely to be prescribed a statin cholesterol medicine (even if you don't have high cholesterol) and an anti-clotting medicine like low-dose aspirin or clopidogrel to help prevent blood clots from forming.

If you have high blood pressure, or diabetes, it's very important to control these well. You'll be prescribed medication to control these conditions.

Surgery

If your symptoms are still very bad after six months of walking therapy, you might need surgery. The options include:

For more information about these types of surgery, see Treatments for blood vessel problems.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Page created July 2018.

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