Leg pain can result from illness, overuse, sprains, strains, and inflammation, to name just a few causes. But if you don’t remember injuring yourself, where is your leg pain coming from, and is it a cause for concern?
At Northwest Houston Heart Center, our fellowship-trained cardiologists, Dr. A. Adnan Aslam and Dr. Roy Norman, want their patients to understand that leg pain may be a sign of underlying vascular disease, and that requires medical attention. Here’s what you need to know.
Arteries, veins, and venous insufficiency
Your circulatory system is a closed loop whose beginning and end attach to your heart. This muscular organ pumps out oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to the body through the arteries and receives deoxygenated blood back through the veins. There’s a slight problem, though. Veins have to move the blood from your lower extremities upward against the pull of gravity, so they need help doing their job.
Your body has come up with two workarounds: Your calf and thigh muscles contract and squeeze the vein walls, pushing the blood forward; and the veins contain valves that shut once the blood passes by, preventing backflow. The valves are delicate, though, and they can be damaged by injury or high blood pressure.
If the valves sustain damage, they can’t close completely, and blood can backtrack along its path and pool around the damaged area. The vein engorges with blood, and if it’s near the surface of the skin, you’ll notice colored, ropy protrusions — varicose veins. The sluggish and inefficient blood flow is called chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), and it’s the first stage of vein disease.
So what does this have to do with leg pain? CVI comes with a number of symptoms. These include leg and ankle swelling, itchy skin, a “heavy” feeling in the lower legs, and, yes, leg pain.
Other vascular causes of leg pain
Blood that flows sluggishly can cause clots to form. So can plaque (fat, cholesterol, protein, and debris) buildup on the vein walls. If the clot forms in a deep leg vein, the condition is called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). DVT can, by itself, cause leg pain, along with a warming of the skin over the clot. More importantly, though, it also carries a life-threatening complication.
If some or all of the clot breaks away from the vein wall, it’s free to travel through the bloodstream to the lungs, where it can block your airway. This condition is called a pulmonary embolism; if it’s not treated immediately, it can be fatal. That’s why getting regular vein check-ups is essential to ensuring your overall health.
If you don’t treat vein disease, it can progress to edema (fluid buildup and swelling), venous stasis dermatitis (skin color changes from damaged blood vessels), and then to venous ulcers, open sores on your ankles and lower legs that are slow to heal, easily infected, and extremely painful. If you have a severe infection, especially if you’re diabetic, you’re at risk of lower leg amputation.
We mentioned that plaque can build up on the vein walls. The sticky mass eventually hardens, narrowing the vessel and making it more difficult for blood to flow through. When this happens in veins serving the lower body, the condition is known as peripheral artery disease (PAD).
One of the major symptoms of PAD is claudication, leg pain that becomes intense when walking but eases when you rest. You need to address the problem before it becomes advanced so it doesn’t completely block blood flow through the vein.
Are you experiencing leg pain but don’t know why? It’s possible you may have a circulatory system problem that needs to be addressed. To schedule an evaluation, call Northwest Houston Heart Center at any of our locations — in Tomball, Cypress, Magnolia, and The Woodlands, Texas — or book online today. You can also text us at 832-402-9518.