By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

Although many people dismiss leg pain as a normal sign of aging, the cause may be life- or limb-threatening for 8.5 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association.

Peripheral artery disease or PAD often goes undetected and untreated. It happens when fatty deposits build up in arteries in the legs and feet, restricting circulation and increasing the risk for heart attack and stroke. Left untreated, PAD can end in amputation.

Cigarette smokers face the highest risk, and diabetics and those with cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity or physical inactivity are also at risk.

The most common PAD symptom is painful muscle cramping in the hips, thighs or calves when walking, climbing stairs or exercising. Other symptoms include skin problems or discoloration (redness) on the legs and feet, foot and toe wounds that don’t improve after a couple of weeks, and poor nail growth, which is a sign of reduced blood flow.

Experts say that PAD can be managed or reversed with proper care — and their advice for getting proper care is pretty simple: If you have risk factors, take your socks off at the doctor’s office so your feet get a closer look. New drugs on the horizon, health plan coverage for exercise therapy and new treatment guidelines for health care providers may help.