Medical researchers rarely advise ignoring pain, but when it comes to some types of leg pain, it just might be the healthiest path.
A team of university researchers has found that people suffering from peripheral arterial disease, a form of atherosclerosis that affects 8 million to 10 million adults, should walk through the discomfort instead of halting the exercise.
Walking improves the muscles’ ability to expand and contract, they say, helping to mitigate inflammation and enhance blood flow.
The findings could improve quality of life for those with the disease, which often leaves sufferers housebound and dependent upon others.
Peripheral arterial disease occurs when cholesterol-laden plaque accumulates in the arteries, restricting blood flow to the legs. The reduction of blood can produce leg pain, aches and fatigue.
The report, based on an analysis of more than 120 exercise studies, was published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Unlike coronary artery disease patients, who should stop exercising as soon as they experience chest pain, PAD patients with cramping pain should walk until they reach a moderate level of leg pain and then continue for several minutes,” said Kerry J. Stewart, director of clinical exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins University and the study’s lead author. “After a few minutes of rest, the walking should be resumed.”
The walking cycle should be repeated until the person can walk for 50 minutes without pain, said Stewart, who was assisted in the study by researchers from the universities of Minnesota and Colorado.
An exercise program in which patients walk on a treadmill several times a week may be the best way to ease the pain, Stewart added.
Leg pain associated with the disease can be “substantially” lessened by sticking to a walking routine that consists of at least three outings per week over a three month period, the study said.
Researchers added a few cautions, however. Some insurance companies won’t cover supervised exercise programs for peripheral arterial disease, and many cardiac rehabilitation programs (in which exercise is monitored) often won’t admit PAD patients.
Patients can discuss a routine with their doctor who, in any case, should provide medical clearance for a walking program, Stewart said.
Without exercise, people with the condition are more likely to need surgical treatments, such as a leg artery bypass or leg angioplasty.