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Leg Pain: Is it Peripheral Artery Disease or Sciatica?

peripheral artery disease leg pain

If you are experiencing leg pain, you may be wondering if you have an underlying condition. Leg pain is a common symptom of peripheral artery disease or sciatica conditions. What’s the difference between sciatica and peripheral artery disease? Peripheral artery disease (PAD) affects blood flow in the vascular system, while sciatica refers to pain caused by compression of the sciatic nerve.

At USA Vascular Centers, our specialists can help diagnose your condition and create a treatment plan that can restore your quality of life.

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What is Peripheral Artery Disease?

Peripheral artery disease occurs when the arteries that carry blood away from the heart are narrowed, restricting blood flow to the extremities. Most commonly, PAD affects the lower extremities: the legs and feet. 

PAD is caused by atherosclerosis, which is the process of plaque accumulation on artery walls, narrowing them and blocking (or preventing) circulation of blood. The restricted blood flow to the legs can cause a range of symptoms, but it’s important to note that in its early stages, PAD is often asymptomatic. In instances where patients do feel some leg pain, they may dismiss it as a normal part of aging. 

If you experience one or more the following symptoms, we encourage you to seek treatment: pain or swelling in the legs and feet that gets worse during exercise (claudication); changes in leg or foot temperature; discolored skin; slowed toenail and hair growth; and sores or ulcers that are slow to heal, or don’t heal at all.

Left untreated, PAD can result in serious complications. Heart attacks and strokes are more likely to occur if you have PAD. This is because if you have atherosclerosis in the peripheral arteries, the arteries leading to the heart and brain are likely impacted as well. 

Untreated PAD can also lead to severe blockages, also known as critical limb ischemia (CLI). CLI can put your limbs at increased risk of requiring amputation. With treatment, however, your risk of complications can be lowered. Risk factors for developing PAD include:

  • Smoking habit
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Advanced age
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol

If you have questions about symptoms you’re experiencing or your risk factors, it’s time to consult with a vascular specialist who can help diagnose and treat PAD.

What is Sciatica?

Sciatica is a painful condition in which something pinches or injures the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve runs from the lower back down through the buttocks, hips, legs, and calves on both sides of the body, where sciatica leg pain typically occurs. The pain can be dull and achy, or it can be sharp, even excruciating.

Usually, sciatica only causes pain on one side of the body, but pain can radiate from the lower back down into the leg. The most common cause of sciatica leg pain is a compressed nerve due to a herniated disk, a bone spur, or narrowing of the spine (spinal stenosis). Common risk factors for sciatica include:

  • Obesity 
  • Advanced age
  • Pregnancy
  • A physically demanding occupation
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle
  • Diabetes

Sciatica typically goes away on its own within a few weeks, especially if you help treat it by stretching, applying ice packs, doing low-impact exercise, and taking over-the-counter pain relief medication if needed. 

If your sciatica leg pain doesn’t go away, or if you also develop one or more of the following symptoms, it’s time to seek immediate care from a medical professional: 

  • Loss of feeling in the affected leg
  • Noticeable weakness in the leg
  • Inability to control bowel and bladder function 

Serious cases of sciatica can result in permanent nerve damage, so we encourage you to seek treatment urgently if you experience these symptoms. 

Peripheral Artery Disease Leg Pain vs. Sciatica Leg Pain

There are key differences between peripheral artery disease leg pain and sciatica leg pain. With peripheral artery disease leg pain, you may experience pain that tends to feel like an ache or cramp deep in your calf or thigh muscles. The pain increases during exercise, especially walking or running, and gets better when you are at rest. PAD pain more often affects both legs, although the pain may be greater in one leg than in the other. 

With sciatica, leg pain, on the other hand, you may find that the pain is worse when you are sitting or at rest. Instead of feeling crampy, sciatica pain is more commonly experienced as a sharp, burning pain shooting from your lower back down into the back of your leg. Sciatica usually only affects one leg, but it can cause pain in both legs. It all depends on where the nerve is pinched. 

How to Diagnose the Cause of Leg Pain

If you’re uncertain whether your leg pain is from peripheral artery disease or sciatica, see your primary care physician. A physician can conduct a physical exam that may eliminate PAD and determine that your pain is sciatica-related or find that it’s caused by something else entirely.

Or, a physician may find evidence of PAD and refer you to a vascular specialist. 

If you feel certain that your pain is related to PAD and not sciatica, you can directly consult with a vascular specialist. Vascular specialists are highly trained in diagnosing PAD via:

Your vascular specialist can help you treat PAD by recommending lifestyle changes that may reduce symptoms. For advanced cases of PAD, a specialist may recommend a minimally invasive procedure like an angioplasty, stent placement, or atherectomy to widen narrowed arteries. Treatment can help relieve your peripheral artery disease leg pain and lower your risk for serious complications. 

Schedule a Consultation at USA Vascular Centers

Our vascular specialists at USA Vascular Centers can help accurately diagnose your leg pain and discuss treatment options if it’s a vascular condition like peripheral artery disease. Our specialists at USA Vascular Centers are highly skilled at treating PAD and can provide you with a personalized treatment plan to get you on the path toward recovery. Schedule an appointment with one of our trusted experts online or give us a call at 888.773.2193 today.

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