Simple calf muscle stretching may reduce leg pain when walking and increase blood flow for people with peripheral artery disease (PAD), according to researchers.
PAD, which can lead to amputation, affects more than 8.5 million adults in the United States and many are unaware they have it. The most common symptom in the lower limbs is painful muscle cramping in the hips, thighs, or calves when walking, climbing stairs, or exercising. The pain often goes away when exercise is stopped, although this may take a few minutes.
If the blood flow is blocked due to plaque buildup, the muscles won’t get enough blood during exercise. The resulting “crampy” pain (called intermittent claudication) is the muscles’ way of warning the body that they aren’t receiving enough blood during exercise to meet the increased demand.
Researchers evaluated 13 patients, most taking a statin drug and anti-platelet medications. Participants were instructed to passively stretch their calf muscles in 30-minute daily sessions using a splint that flexed their ankles about 15 percent. Walking ability and blood flow were measured after four weeks of calf stretching five days per week and after four weeks without the special stretches.
After one month of daily calf stretches, the participants:
- Improved the ability of their calf arteries to relax and expand to let blood flow through, moving them into the normal range for healthy elderly people
- Extended the distance they could walk in six minutes
- Increased the distance they could walk before needing to stop and rest due to leg discomfort
Structured walking programs are a cornerstone of PAD treatment, along with medication and sometimes interventions to open clogged blood vessels.
“A physical therapist can instruct you how to adjust and wear the splints correctly so you can do the stretches at home,” said Kazuki Hotta, PhD, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo. “There is no doubt about the benefit of exercise training on blood vessel health in PAD patients. If you have limited walking ability, I recommend that you at least perform muscle stretches so you can gain enough comfort and confidence in walking to participate in a walking exercise program.”
This article is based on information provided by the American Heart Association.