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Pains in the legs

Article first published 2003

Pains in the legs

Do you experience pain when walking? Or suffer from varicose veins? Check the information below for both conditions

Take advantage of a free medical check for vein disease coming soon in 2003 to a store near you

Among 1,000 readers of Yours magazine over the age of 45 who experience leg pain on walking….

  • One-third suffered so much they were unable to travel abroad, and two in three found sightseeing trips difficult because of the pain.

  • Eight out of 10 were unable to walk more than 60 yards before pain set in.

  • A quarter of participants put their symptoms down to getting older and had not talked to a doctor about them.

  • Two-thirds of the respondents had to keep stopping and starting while walking, and more than half needed to sit down and rest frequently.

  • A third found it difficult even to walk around their homes, and many were denied simple hobbies such as bowling, golf and dancing.

  • Many of these people are suffering from a condition called Intermittent Claudication

What is Intermittent Claudication (IC)?

A cramping pain in the legs when walking. If the pain goes away with rest, this could be a condition known as intermittent claudication.

Underlying cause of IC?

IC is one of the main symptoms of peripheral arterial disease (PAD), disorders that affect the arteries taking blood to the limbs. The most common of these disorders is called atherosclerosis where cholesterol and other fatty materials build up on the artery walls. This narrows the area through which blood can flow and results in the arteries carrying less oxygen-rich blood to the tissues.

Why the pain?

The fatty deposits restrict blood flow to leg muscles. During exercise muscles require more oxygen, but if blood flow is restricted by a blockage, pain and cramping can occur due to a lack of oxygen. Rest can relieve the pain: when leg muscles stop working, they require less oxygen and can function therefore with reduced blood flow.

Signs of IC?

People with IC feel an ache or pain in their legs or cramp when they walk. Some people experience discomfort even when walking a short distance, such as 50 metres. As the suggests the pain is intermittent, many people unknowingly accept it as a natural part of growing old. Pain is most common in the lower legs, normally the calves but this depends on where blood flow is obstructed in the arteries. Pain can also occur in the thighs, buttocks, hips or feet. 

Any other symptoms of IC?

Fatigue, weakness and numbness of the limbs or a heaviness of the limb affected.

How many people affected?

IC is more prevalent among men than women, particularly those over the age of 55. Around 12.5 million people in Europe alone suffer from PVD, with at least four million showing symptoms of IC. These figures may be higher as many people with IC go undiagnosed.

Is IC Life threatening?

Not in itself, but can be severely debilitating, affecting people’s physical and social wellbeing. In severe cases people with IC may even have difficulty in moving around their own home, placing a greater burden on partners and carers. People with severe IC can also find that their normal walking speed is often much slower than other people of the same age, causing additional frustration and anxiety. However….

Who is at risk?

Risk factors include smoking, people with high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, age and heredity. People with IC are also at increased risk of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries, associated with risk of heart attack, and also in the blood vessels of the brain, increasing the risk of stroke. Due to the high incidence of strokes (cerebrovascular disease) and cardiac disease (heart attacks and angina) among people with IC, life expectancy is significantly reduced.

How is IC diagnosed?

Diagnosing is based primarily on a person’s medical history and physical examination. Anyone experiencing pain that ceases after walking should consult their doctor for further advice.

Prompt recognition of the disease means that treatment can be given to reduce disability and improve quality of life. Secondary prevention measures, such as medical intervention, can also be given to reduce the patient’s overall cardiovascular risk.


There is a range of treatments available for IC, aimed at relieving pain, improving physical activity and distance walked without pain. Lifestyle changes, such as giving up smoking, dietary changes and exercise programmes are important.

Minor surgery may be an option for patients with severe IC. This involves inserting a flexible tube into the artery and blowing it up to increase the size of the artery thereby improving blood flow. In more severe cases a bypass to the blocked segment of the artery may be needed.


Activa Healthcare, recent winners of the Queen's Award 2003 for Innovation in Compression Hosiery, is going nationwide in October with its 'Heart's Little Helpers' campaign. Your 'heart's little helpers' are your calves and calf muscles, and Activa will be offering free leg health checks to the public at selected UK Superdrug and NCC pharmacies, to show people how to spot the first signs of venous disease (thread veins, varicose veins, and swollen legs and ankles). The campaign is being run in conjunction with The Tissue Viability Nurse Society (South), which specialises in the treatment of venous disease.

The 'Heart's Little Helpers' campaign was piloted last year, and demand for free leg health checks was so high that for this October's campaign there will be more venues, nationwide for people to attend. The free leg health checks are carried out by nurses who will take a medical history and then perform a leg examination, checking for any signs of venous disease.

The check takes approximately ten minutes and no appointment is necessary. Free leaflets produced by Activa and the Tissue Viability Nurse Society (South) called 'Taking Care of Your Legs' which explain how to examine your legs, and how to spot the first signs of venous disease, will be available for people to take away.

Around 70% of the people seen on the pilot 'Heart's Little Helpers' leg health checks last year had some signs of venous disease, and were recommended for compression hosiery. Compression hosiery can stop venous disease in its tracks and provide relief from the pain of varicose veins and swollen legs and ankles. It is also used to treat leg ulcers, which can develop if venous disease is not treated early enough.

Compression hosiery works by applying a gentle graduated pressure from the ankle up the leg, improving the circulation in the legs, and helping the veins return the blood back to the heart. Regular wear can also reduce general feelings of fatigue in the legs.

Activa compression hosiery uses modern materials such as tactel and lycra, so it looks like ordinary hosiery, is comfortable to wear and easy to put on.

To find out details of your nearest pharmacy running the 'Heart's Little Helpers' campaign, and the dates when the free leg health checks will be available, and also for a free copy of the leaflet 'Taking Care of Your Legs', call Activa on 01283 540957, or go to where all of the venues are listed.

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