Cheryl Wilson went from running 5K races to struggling to walk a few blocks.
When it happened, Wilson, a 63-year-old wellness coach from Chesapeake, VA, shrugged it off as a charley horse. But the pain persisted for weeks and made walking unbearable. So Wilson finally went to see her doctor.
“Anytime I walked a short distance, I would get leg pain,” Wilson says. “It was in my calf, behind the knee.”
In 2009, Wilson was diagnosed with peripheral artery disease (PAD). She had never heard of the condition, which affects 6.5 million adults over the age of 40. PAD happens when the arteries that transport blood from your heart to the rest of your body narrow. It can lead to sticky plaque buildup that can block blood flow and cause pain.
Wilson started her treatment plan, which included stents to expand the narrowed arteries in her legs, would be “one and done.”
Instead, 1 month after her initial procedure, Wilson was back in the cardiac catheterization lab so that her doctors could implant additional stents to keep her arteries open. They also prescribed cholesterol medication and blood thinners to improve blood flow and reduce the risks of heart attack and stroke.
The ordeal marked Wilson’s realization that PAD “wasn’t curable.”
Wilson learned that lifestyle changes could help ease the leg pain and prevent more damage. She focused on eating a balanced diet and started working out regularly again. She also quit smoking, which is linked to higher risk of more severe PAD, including a higher risk of amputation.
Wilson had been very active before her leg pains started. In fact, Wilson’s cardiologist often used to see her walking on the treadmill at their gym. After Wilson’s diagnosis, her doctor encouraged her to resume her solo workouts.
“Yes, I was slow and it hurt and I would stop, but I wouldn’t give up,” Wilson says.
Studies show that walking programs for PAD should hurt, at least a little. Researchers found that a high-intensity walking routine that increased leg pain led to more improvements in walking distance than a low-intensity walking routine.
“The simplest and most successful treatment (for leg and arm pain) is supervised exercise therapy,” says Michael H. Criqui, MD, MPH, distinguished professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine. “People who undergo supervised exercise therapy will be able to walk longer and do more with PAD.”
The structured exercise program may include walking on the treadmill, cycling, and strength training for 30-45 minutes at least three times per week for 12 weeks.
“Once you learn that it works and you stick with it, you can see changes in 3 to 4 weeks,” Criqui adds. The results can be “better than you’ll get with medicines.”
Joshua Beckman, MD, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and chairperson of the American Heart Association Vascular Health Advisory Committee, suggests a “slow and steady” approach to establishing a walking workout.
“Walk until you feel discomfort, stop and rest, and then start walking again,” Beckman says.
That’s the advice Wilson followed. She kept walking even when her pain was so bad that she wanted to give up. In 2020, 4 months after undergoing bypass surgery for PAD, she crossed the finish line of another 5K race.
“It was a good ego booster that I could do it,” she says.
Sometimes exercise alone may not be enough to banish arm and leg pain. Your doctor may prescribe medications to lower cholesterol or to thin your blood. Beckman says other drugs can help increase blood flow, lower pain, and help you walk farther.
A medical procedure called revascularization, which uses tiny balloons or stents to open the arteries, might also be needed, Beckman says.
For Wilson, her commitment to no smoking, eating clean, exercising, and taking her medications helped her return to her favorite activities.
“I think the thing that made me push harder was wanting my quality of life back,” Wilson says. When she got diagnosed, the pain kept her from running races — an important part of her profession as a wellness coach.
“Those are the things people look up to you for,” she says. “So I got back out there, took responsibility for my health and it worked.”