Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a build up of fatty deposits (plaque) in the blood vessels of the legs. The blockages can slow and even block blood flow. When the blood flow is slowed to working leg muscles it can cause cramping and pain. This is called intermittent claudication (IC). People with this condition are treated with lifestyle changes, medication, and sometimes surgery.
Researchers from the Cochrane Library reviewed several past studies to determine if an exercise program can help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life for people with IC. Their review found that exercise programs are a low-risk option to improve leg pain on walking.
The researchers reviewed 22 previous trials with a total of 1200 participants with stable leg pain. The specific exercise choices varied in the different studies but included walking and strength training. All had at least two supervised sessions per week. All the studies also used a treadmill walking test at the beginning and end of the study to measure any changes.
The exercise group was compared to a placebo group and a usual care group. Usual care may include medication, surgery, or pneumatic foot and calf compression. At the end of the trials, when compared to placebo the exercise group had significantly improved:
Compared to usual care, individual trials found that exercise alone improved walking time than angioplasty and antiplatelet therapy. The effect of exercise was not significantly different than the benefits of surgical treatment.
IC can interfere with your daily activities and decrease quality of life. Exercise appears to provide an inexpensive, non-invasive way to decrease the related problems. In addition, regular exercise is known to provide benefits for your heart, bones, and overall health.
Exercise programs have relatively low risk, especially compared to surgical options. However, people with IC often have other medical conditions. Talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program. Discuss exercise choices and necessary precautions.
American Heart Association
Vascular Surgery—Society for Vascular Surgery
Watson L, Ellis B, Leng GC. Exercise for intermittent claudication.Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews2008, Issue 4. Art. No.: CD000990. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000990.pub2.
Last reviewed February 2009 by Larissa J. Lucas, MD