Understanding Claudication (leg pain)

Understanding Claudication

How does the circulatory system work?


Your heart is the pump for your circulatory system. It is made of muscle and is able to contract in order to pump blood through your body.

Arteries and Veins

The arteries and veins are the roadways through which blood is transported to all parts of your body. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Veins return the blood to the heart after the oxygen has been used.


Your body needs oxygen in order to function. When you walk, your leg muscles need increased amounts of oxygen in order to do their work. If the arteries in your lower body are able to carry blood unimpeded to your muscles, then you are able to walk comfortably.

If you have blockages in your leg arteries, or in the arteries leading to the legs, you may not be able to get enough oxygen-rich blood down to your legs. The decrease in oxygen to your legs can result in claudication.

What is claudication?

Claudication is a term used to describe the discomfort felt in leg muscles that occurs when you walk because of a decrease of blood pressure in the leg.

What are the symptoms of claudication?

Symptoms may occur in one or both legs and they are most often described as cramps. They may also be described as a burning sensation, an ache, or a feeling of heaviness in the leg.

A common place to feel the cramping is in the calf muscle, although cramping may also appear in the thigh or buttock.

Typically, people with claudication may be able to walk a certain distance, say three blocks, before the cramping becomes so severe they must stop and rest. After they have rested and the pain is gone, they may walk approximately the same distance again before having to stop and rest. The distance a person is able to walk varies with the severity of the blockages in the arteries. Many people with claudication experience no leg discomfort when they are at rest.

What causes arteries to become blocked?

Arterial blockage, or atherosclerosis, is caused by a buildup of fatty deposits on the inside of the arteries. This fatty buildup makes the artery narrow, which reduces the amount of blood flow through the vessel.

How can I tell if I have arterial blockage?

Tell your doctor about your symptoms. After your doctor has spoken to you and has done a physical exam, you may need to have some testing done.

What tests will be done?

There are relatively simple tests that can be performed to determine whether your arterial blood flow is normal.

Arteries and Veins

During this test, the technologist will place blood pressure cuffs at several points along your legs and take the blood pressure using a Doppler, a microphone-like instrument. You may be asked to walk on a treadmill, after which your ankle pressure will be taken again to determine if the pressure decreased when you walked.

Ultrasound scan

During an ultrasound scan, blood flow is evaluated and the diameter of the arteries is measured.


During an arteriogram, dye is injected into the arteries while X-rays are taken. The dye "lights up" the arterial system allowing the areas of blockage to be accurately pinpointed.

What are the risks?

As with all invasive procedures, there is some risk associated with an Arteriogram. Your physician will be able to inform you of any risk specific to your particular case.

How is claudication treated?

With the information obtained from your diagnostic tests, your physician can determine an appropriate treatment plan and course of action to take for your particular situation. Whatever you and your doctor decide will be explained to you in detail. Some of these options can include:

  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Medication
  • Angioplasty
  • Stent
  • Bypass Surgery
  • Stop Smoking


It is important to be your own best health advocate. A good way to do that is by committing to routine physical exams and diagnostic tests as often as is recommended by your doctor.

Early detection of circulatory problems is important for effective treatment.

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