Save a Leg, Save a Life hopes to educate people about peripheral artery disease

Herald Health CorrespondentSeptember 17, 2013 

To gauge how much you know about cardiovascular disease, answer this: Blocked arteries can occur in a) the heart, b) the brain, or c) the legs. If you answered "all of the above," you probably know more than most.

The fact that clogged arteries can result in a heart attack or stroke is fairly common knowledge. Fewer are likely to know that vessels supplying blood to the legs can also be harmed by risk factors such as high cholesterol.

And that over time, poor blood supply to the lower limbs could result in an increased risk for amputations. The underlying cause of a leg or foot ulceration that won't heal can be blood-flow blockages due to narrowed arteries.

The condition has a name, peripheral artery disease, or PAD, and a new chapter in Sarasota and Manatee of the Save a Leg, Save a Life Foundation is seeking to raise awareness.

Through reaching out to physicians and making screenings available at health fairs and other venues, the goal of Save a Leg, Save a Life is to educate about symptoms, risk factors and treatment of PAD, and also about better wound care.

The problem is that PAD isn't uncommon but can be overlooked even by health care professionals, said Martin Aldrich, a Sarasota cardiologist and co-founder of the new Save a Leg, Save a Life chapter.

"When someone has leg pain when they walk and it gets better when they stop walking, that's the most classic symptom," he said.

But PAD can be confused for other problems or occur silently. Only about 13 percent experience classic symptoms; a third complain of heaviness in their legs when they walk or of leg or buttocks pain at night; and half don't have any symptoms at all, said Aldrich.

An estimated 8 million people in the United States are affected by PAD, according to the American Heart Association. Two of the leading causes are smoking and diabetes. Smokers may be at four times greater risk than non-smokers, says the heart association.

Other PAD risk factors are similar to all types of cardiovascular disease such as older age, obesity, physical inactivity and high blood pressure.

The Save a Leg, Save a Life Foundation began in Jacksonville in 2005, started by a podiatrist who had a goal of reducing the rate of amputations by educating physicians about better wound care and treatment of PAD. The same techniques that prop open blocked vessels in the heart, such as stents, also can be used to treat PAD.

"A lot of it is to educate physicians in the community to be more proactive and work to find protocols," said Dana Soldati, practice liaison at the Aldrich Cardiovascular Institute in Sarasota.

Soldati has been going door to door to meet with doctors such as primary care specialists and podiatrists. The first meeting of the Sarasota chapter of Save a Leg, Save a Life's was held in August. A second meeting in September will feature a podiatrist from California who is a leading wound care specialist.

The meetings are mainly for health professionals but anyone who is interested in the campaign's mission is welcome, said Soldati.

Screening for PAD can be done as part of a doctor's visit by checking for weak pulses in the leg and through a simple blood pressure test called the ankle-brachial index. The test measures blood pressure in the ankle and compares it to blood pressure in the arm.

Because PAD often is silent, proactive testing can be overlooked, said Soldati.

As part of the Save a Leg, Save a Life campaign, technicians from the Aldrich Cardiovascular Institute will be offering free screenings for PAD through that ankle-brachial index test at health fairs and other health events, said Soldati.

PAD also can be mistaken for other conditions, especially in diabetics. People with diabetes are at risk of developing clogged blood vessels below the knee but PAD is often mistaken for neuropathy, another complication of diabetes. Neuropathy numbs feeling in the lower legs and feet or causes painful tingling.

Untreated PAD makes diabetics susceptible to hard-to-heal foot or leg wounds that can develop gangrene and lead to amputation.

Opening up blocked vessels through interventions such angioplasty can help save the leg, said Aldrich. Making more physicians aware that PAD is treatable through the surgical techniques used for blocked arteries in the heart is part of the goal of Save a Leg, Save a Life.

However, before PAD has progressed to advanced stages, the first-line treatment is the same for other cardiovascular disease, said Aldrich. That is eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising.

"It isn't reversible," he said about PAD. "But it's controllable and treatable."

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at shemmingway@hotmail.com.

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