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Leg Pain: A Symptom Not to Ignore

LegIf you’re over the age of 50 and experience leg pain when you walk or climb stairs, don’t ignore it. Studies show that one in five adults over 55 have Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD), a common circulation problem that can significantly affect your quality of life and long-term health.

“Many people with PVD dismiss these symptoms as a normal part of aging,” said Clinical Cardiologist Elias A. Iliadis, M.D., Medical Director of Noninvasive Vascular Intervention at the Cooper Heart Institute. “Tell your doctor if you’re feeling pain in your legs and discuss whether you should be tested for PVD. Left undiagnosed and untreated, PVD puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, and other serious, health complications.”

The most common symptoms of PVD are cramping, pain, or a tiredness or heavy feeling in the legs while walking or climbing stairs. Typically, the pain goes away with rest and returns when you’re active again.

PVD is a narrowing or blockage of arteries that decreases blood flow to the legs. The most common cause is the buildup of plaque on the inside of arteries. Plaque is made of extra cholesterol, calcium and other material in your blood. Over time, the plaque builds up along the inner walls of the arteries and prevents the blood from flowing freely to the muscles and other tissues in your legs.

This restricted blood flow is what causes the pain in your legs when you walk or climb stairs. During physical activity, your muscles need increased blood flow. If your arteries are narrowed or blocked, you’re legs aren’t getting the extra blood they need to fuel the exertion. When you’re at rest, the muscles need less blood flow, so the pain goes away.

“Given the nature of these kinds of activity-related symptoms, it’s easy to understand how people in their 50′s or 60′s might just attribute their discomfort to ‘mid-life aches and pains.’ But that’s a mistake. Making the diagnosis of PVD requires a physician’s exam and simple, noninvasive screening tests to determine if it’s PVD and evaluate it’s severity,” Dr. Iliadis said.

The Cooper Heart Institute offers expert physicians and simple, noninvasive tests to diagnose and treat PVD. The screening begins with a physical examination to check for weak pulses in the legs and includes an ankle-brachial index (ABI) test. The ABI is a painless exam that compares the blood pressure in your feet to the blood pressure in your arms to see how well your blood is flowing. If an ABI reveals an abnormal ratio, other diagnostic testing may be recommended.

“As vascular specialists, we perform thorough physical exams and simple tests, such as the ABI or pulse volume recordings, to help define the contribution of vascular disease to leg pain. At Cooper, all patients diagnosed with PVD are treated with medical therapy first, and, happily, most feel better,” Dr. Iliadis said.

61 Responses to “Leg Pain: A Symptom Not to Ignore”

  1. Louise says:

    I am a 69 year old female, in good health, I have been to several doctors, concerning the pain in my legs, I am so frustrated that they can’t find any answers for the pain that I am having in my legs I experience this pain when I get up in the morning to stand up, my legs are so weak I almost lose my balance, this happens everyday, once I start my day my legs become stronger, like after my bath. When driving for long periods of time or sitting for long periods of time, it takes a real effort to stand, without feeling weak in my legs, the pain is almost unbearable, any suggestions? Please help , I am desperate.

  2. Dr. Joseph Lombardi says:

    According to your explanation of your symptoms, it sounds like you may have arthritis or lower back problems.

  3. Gabriela Brown says:

    I am a 43 year old female. About 2 weeks ago, my legs started feeling heavy from the knee down my calves and feet. When squatting my knees deel very uncomfortable As if they are heavy and swalloen. Last night I had cramps on my right calf. I have some medical issues but this is new. When walking especially climbing stairs it feels as if my legs are tie to some heavy weights.

  4. Emily says:

    I’m a 33 year old female & have been having problems with pain in my right foot for about 2 months and now starting this week my right leg has begun to feel heavy and appears swollen and is slightly harder than the left leg. Not sure if the foot pain and the leg pain are related or not. I am on my feet at work for 10 hours a day (for the last 15 years.) I am going to see a doctor tomorrow if the heaviness doesn’t go away but now I am wondering if I should go today instead.

  5. Joyce says:

    When I get up from sitting for long periods (such as driving my car)I get out of my car and start walking and I have this heavy sensation in my very lower back/buttock that goes around to the front of my top legs down to knees. It is a weird kind of pain and heaviness that at times I am concerned that at some point I may not make it to the door. I just try to slowly keep walking though it and after a minute or two it lessens. ??

  6. gloria says says:

    I have been on crestor for about 3 weeks then i got terriable pain behind my knees. i stopped for a week seem to go away now just went back on for 3 days it started all over again. what should i do

  7. Rebecca Gonzales says:

    My right leg and thigh have been feeling heavier than the left that when getting in and out of car, I need to help my left leg with my hand to get out. When I walk, I still feel that leaden feeling on this left leg/thigh. I am 67 and this started about a week ago. I am normally on the elliptical machine, but was on vacation for a week and haven’t been back. I have no pains or discomfort, but just this heavy leg. What is this?

  8. Dizzy says:

    I am a 72 year old woman in excellent health, 140 lbs, never smoked had a regular physical recently. Only take a thyroid med and an antiinflammatory for minor arthritis pain in hands and knees..
    Exercise 5 days a week for at least 1 1/4 hours a day doing weights, walking a mile a day on treadmill, bike (indoors) 20 minutes 3x week.No problems except a few times a week I have been getting this, I GUESS I would call it heavyness from buttocks and down the back of my leg or legs. If I happen to cough I can feel it in the legs/buttocks. I also stretch well, after each exercise session. Hesitate to run to dr. All I read doesnt actually sound like it is anything.

  9. Carol Waites says:

    I am 68 yrs. old and have had progressive pain in my upper thigh area. I cannot climb stairs no get up from a chair without excruciating pain. My doctor gave me some anti-inflammatory meds but they leave me lethargic. I have had a CAT Scan but it showed nothing abnormal. .I have had an MRI and once again nothing out of the norm showed up. The lower thigh area is not effected at all. Sometimes the ankles ache and wake me up at night.
    Help please!

  10. Cooper University Hospital says:

    Hi Carol,
    If you’d like to make an appointment with a Cooper doc call (1-800-826-6737) or request and appointment at
    Thank you.

  11. Jeff cape says:

    Why are my legs so week I go to the gym and walk up our stairs a lot everyday?


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