Leg Cramps: When Should You Be Worried

Blog Post
By South Valley Vascular
May 25, 2023

Most people have experienced leg cramps at least once in their lifetime, but when do they become a cause for genuine concern? In most instances, leg cramps are harmless, but can be a sign of peripheral arterial disease (also called PAD). Today we’ll learn more about PAD and leg cramps in general, and when leg cramps are a sign of PAD.

What Can Cause Cramps in Legs?

A range of different conditions and underlying issues can cause cramps in legs. They can be caused by stress, not exercising enough, magnesium deficiency, overexerting yourself, or not drinking enough water. Your provider can determine the underlying cause of your leg cramps.

One frequent cause of leg cramps relates to the oxygenation of the muscles in the legs. Proper oxygen flow is necessary for the health of your cells, organs, muscles, and tissues. Also, proper oxygenation means each system of your body is functioning optimally.

There are times, however, when the muscles can’t receive the oxygen they need to work properly. The muscles try to respire without oxygen, producing lactic acid as a by-product. Then, leftover reserves of lactic acid can create a sore burning feeling in the legs. Therefore, lactic acid buildup causes excessive cramping. This acid is typically harmless and disperses in the body with time.

When to Worry About Leg Cramps?

Most of the time, leg cramps are not a cause for concern. Usually, these cramps appear suddenly, seemingly at random, and go away just as quickly. However, some cramps are symptomatic of Peripheral Artery Disease (or PAD).

PAD is part of a group of diseases called Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD). PVD is an umbrella term referring to not just the arteries but also veins, capillaries, and the lymphatic system.

Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)

PAD specifically targets arteries, most frequently the arteries in the legs and lower half of the body. Left untreated, PAD can lead to the progressive narrowing of the arteries, decreasing oxygen flow to the area. This condition often starts with cramping in the legs but leads to greater complications. Extreme complications can include limb loss, heart attack, or stroke.

Some of the most common symptoms of PAD include symptoms like:

  • Pain in the legs, especially the calf, buttocks, or thighs
  • Leg numbness or weakness
  • Recent unexplained hair loss on legs or feet
  • Thickening toenails
  • Skin color changes on the legs and feet (sometimes pale, red, or blue)
  • Slow or non-healing wounds on the feet and legs
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Muscle shrinking (atrophy) in the legs
  • Weakened pulse in the lower part of the body.

Unfortunately, PAD develops in subtle ways and can often blend in with general feelings of aging. This means it’s often difficult to detect PAD until it’s progressed. 

Who is at Risk of Developing PAD?

PAD affects both men and women and is more prevalent with certain risk factors. For instance, smoking is one of the most prevalent risk factors, as is being over 50 years of age. In addition, conditions like diabetes and chronic kidney disease also are risk factors for developing PAD. 

Moreover, people who have experienced heart attacks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or blood clotting disorders are also more prone to PAD. Likewise, a family history of other PVD conditions might also make someone more prone to developing PAD later in life.

Treat Your PAD with Help From South Valley Vascular

If you think you are at risk for early stages of PAD, schedule a consultation with your doctor for a diagnosis. If you live in the Bay Area and need vascular expertise, call on the friendly experts at South Valley Vascular

South Valley Vascular is here to help you achieve optimal vascular and circulatory health. Our team of providers can offer useful advice and tips, including tips for getting rid of leg cramps at night. Schedule an appointment with a South Valley Vascular doctor today!