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Few Americans Know of Leg Artery Danger

Peripheral arterial disease is common and sometimes deadly, researchers say

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Three-quarters of adult Americans polled recently said they knew little or nothing about peripheral arterial disease (PAD), a very common blockage of blood vessels in the legs that boosts heart risk.

"I don't think that was necessarily a surprise among physicians involved in PAD," said Dr. Timothy Murphy, a professor of diagnostic imaging at Brown University, who co-authored a report on the survey, published in the Sept. 18 issue of Circulation.

"Most of us know that many of the patients at risk don't seek medical attention," Murphy said. "But it was surprising that the knowledge base was as small as it was, considering that there are 8 million people in the United States with the disease."

Murphy is a member of the Peripheral Arterial Disease Coalition, which conducted the survey. The coalition is funded by grants from the Bristol-Myers Squibb/Sanofi Aventis Partnership (both members of the Partnership are drug companies) and medical device maker Cordis Endovascular, a division of Cordis Corp.

In PAD, arteries in the legs are narrowed or blocked with fatty deposits. These obstructions can cause leg pain but often produces no symptoms. PAD can damage legs enough to cause amputation, and it can also signal a raised risk of heart attacks or strokes caused by a narrowing of the arteries elsewhere in the body.

Three-quarters of the 2,051 people aged 50 and over queried via phone in the survey said they were aware of strokes, and two-thirds knew about risks of coronary artery disease and heart failure. But just 25 percent knew about PAD -- far behind awareness levels for much rarer conditions, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease (36 percent) and multiple sclerosis (42 percent).

Among the one in four adults who were aware of PAD, only 28 percent associated it with an increased risk of heart attack, and just 14 percent linked it with amputation and death.

That's no big surprise, Murphy said, since "the link between PAD and heart attacks and stroke is just becoming disseminated among primary-care physicians."

Relatively few family doctors routinely perform the basic diagnostic test for PAD, called the ankle-brachial index, he said. Blood pressure is measured in the arm and at the ankle, with the measurements repeated at both sites after five minutes of walking on a treadmill. Lower pressure at the ankle indicates PAD. The lower the ankle-brachial index, the greater the danger.

"The test is not often done in a primary-care physician's office," Murphy said. "It is not reimbursed under Medicare unless there are symptoms, and it is hard to ask physicians to do a test unless they are reimbursed. We are trying to get support for Medicare to reimburse for it as a diagnostic test."

Diagnosis of PAD indicates the need for attention to the well-known risk factors for arterial blockage elsewhere in the body, such as smoking, high blood pressure, cholesterol levels and lack of exercise, said Dr. Alan T. Hirsch, a professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota, and another author of the report.

Lack of awareness means that even adults who have leg pains or other symptoms of PAD are not aware of its dangers, Hirsch said. "At a time when the public is bombarded with health messages, it would seem wise for those with one of the single most common cardiovascular diseases to be aware of the risk," he said.

The survey also shows that physicians are not doing enough about awareness of PAD risk, Hirsch said. While 26 percent of those in the survey who were aware of PAD said they got information from broadcast media such as television, only 19 percent reported first hearing about PAD from a health-care provider.

Physicians should be aware of PAD symptoms as a major warning sign of potential trouble, Hirsch said. "Denigrating leg pain as unimportant is as logical as avoiding chest pain," he said.

More information

Questions about PAD are answered by the PAD Coalition.

SOURCES: Timothy Murphy, M.D., professor, diagnostic imaging, Brown University, Providence, R.I.; Alan T. Hirsch, M.D., professor, epidemiology and community health, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Sept. 17, 2007, Circulation

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