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Cardiovascular disease: know your risks and symptoms 

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Did you know that painful cramping in the legs could be a symptom of peripheral artery disease (PAD), a type of cardiovascular disease (CVD)?1 During Legs Matter Week (12-16 October), learn more about how to check for the early warning signs of PAD and the risks and symptoms of different types of CVD. Understanding the risks and symptoms can help to keep you healthy and avoid a life-changing incident.

What is cardiovascular disease?

Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a general term for conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels (arteries and veins) and share a common set of risk factors.2 There are several different types of CVD, including:2

  • Coronary heart disease / coronary artery disease (CAD)
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
  • Stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
  • Aortic disease (a group of conditions affecting the aorta, the blood vessel which carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body)

CVD is normally associated with a build-up of fatty substances in the artery walls (atherosclerosis).3 For example, CAD is caused by a build-up in the arteries that supply blood to the heart, whereas PAD is caused by a build-up in the arteries going to the legs.4,5 The build-up of fatty substances causes the arteries to harden which reduces the amount of oxygen that can get to the heart and legs.1,3,6 CAD can lead to angina, heart attacks, or heart failure.7 Advanced cases of PAD can lead to complete loss of blood flow to the affected limb, which may mean that amputation is required.8

Knowing my risk

The risk of having a CVD is driven by various factors, but it can be reduced through lifestyle changes.2  Knowing what your risk factors are is a good first step to preventing CVD. Risk factors can include:2,9

  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Lack of exercise
  • Being overweight or obese
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Poor diet
  • Age (most common in people over 50)
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart disease

Watch for symptoms

Key symptoms can provide early warning signs that you are at risk of a CVD. For example, common symptoms of CAD include chest pain and breathlessness.4 Many people with PAD may have no symptoms, however, if they do experience symptoms these can include:1,5

  • Painful aching in the legs
  • Hair loss on the legs and feet
  • Numbness or weakness in the legs
  • Brittle, slow-growing toenails
  • Ulcers (open sores) on the legs and feet that don’t heal
  • Changing skin colour on the legs, such as turning pale or blue
  • Shiny skin
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • The muscles in the legs shrinking

Other CVD symptoms to watch out for are: chest pain, weakness or numb legs and / or arms, breathlessness, very fast or slow heartbeat, palpitations, feeling dizzy, lightheaded or faint, fatigue, swollen limbs.9

Taking action on symptoms

If you are worried about any symptoms, you should make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible.10 This is especially important if you also have one or more of the risk factors listed above.2 Don’t wait as you may need medical help or prescribed treatments to remain as healthy as possible. Lifestyle changes and prescribed treatments can help to manage CVD and reduce the risk of a potential cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke.4,11

Healthcare services have changed considerably due to the coronavirus pandemic. Social distancing may affect how you access care. However, this doesn’t mean you should delay contacting your GP if you are concerned about your risk factors or have symptoms.10 There are options that mean you can continue to safely speak to a healthcare professional, e.g. video call appointments.10

Useful information

Document number: PP-UN-CAR-GB-0021
Date of preparation: September 2020
1Legs Matter. Cramp or pain in your legs after walking. Available at: https://legsmatter.org/help-information/for-patients-family-friends/cramp-or-pain-in-your-legs-after-walking/ [Accessed September 2020]
2NHS. Cardiovascular Diseases. 2018. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cardiovascular-disease/ [Accessed September 2020]
3NHS. Atherosclerosis (arteriosclerosis). Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/atherosclerosis/ [Accessed September 2020]
4NHS. Coronary Heart Disease. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronary-heart-disease/ [Accessed September 2020]
5NHS. Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD). Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/peripheral-arterial-disease-pad/ [Accessed September 2020]
6NHS. Causes: Coronary heart disease. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronary-heart-disease/causes/ [Accessed September 2020]
7NHS. Symptoms: Coronary heart disease. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronary-heart-disease/symptoms/ [Accessed September 2020]
8Mayo Clinic. Peripheral artery disease (PAD). Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseasesconditions/peripheral-artery-disease/symptomscauses/syc-20350557 [Accessed September 2020]
9British Heart Foundation. Cardiovascular Disease. 2019. Available at: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/cardiovascular-heart-disease [Accessed September 2020]
10NHS. Using the NHS and other health services during coronavirus. 2020. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/social-distancing/using-the-nhs-and-other-health-services/ [Accessed September 2020]
11NHS. Prevention: Stroke. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stroke/prevention/ [Accessed September 2020]

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