Intermittent claudication is muscle pain that happens when you're active and stops when you rest. It's usually a symptom of blood flow problems like peripheral artery disease. Over time, this can get worse and lead to serious health problems and complications. However, this condition is usually treatable, especially with early diagnosis.
Intermittent claudication is muscle pain that happens when you’re active and stops when you rest. In some cases, the pain is intense enough that it even interferes with simpler activities like walking. Claudication-related pain happens because of a decrease in blood circulation, which can indicate or serious health conditions.
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Intermittent claudication is a circulatory problem where a part of your body doesn't have enough blood flow. That lack of blood flow, known as ischemia (iss-key-me-uh), means the affected areas of your body don’t have enough oxygen. If ischemia lasts for too long, that can damage the affected area and even cause the affected cells to die.
Intermittent claudication usually affects your legs and gets its name from the fact that it gets better when you stop and rest. That happens because when you’re physically active, your muscle cells are working harder and need more oxygen than your blood can deliver. Those cells don't need as much oxygen when you're resting, so there’s enough supply to meet the demand.
The main cause of intermittent claudication is a condition called peripheral artery disease (PAD). That condition happens with atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of a wax-like substance called plaque on the inside of your arteries. As that buildup gets worse, there’s less room for blood to flow through those arteries.
PAD happens when plaque buildup causes significant or severe narrowing of the arteries that feed your limbs (especially your legs). Much like a closed lane on a road causes traffic to slow down and back up, narrowing of your blood vessels slows down blood flow to your limbs.
Pain from claudication is usually dull and aching. It may also feel like your muscles are tiring out, or it can feel like a muscle spasm or cramp (sometimes described with the informal term “Charley horse”). The more effort or activity, the worse the pain will feel. In some cases, you may also feel numbness because the nearby nerves also don’t have enough blood flow.
An important detail about claudication is that it affects muscles only. It doesn’t cause arthritis and joint pain. The pain should also stop within a few minutes — or even less — once you stop to rest. If the pain is in one or more joints or lasts for several minutes after you stop to rest, it’s more likely that this is not intermittent claudication.
Though intermittent claudication is a symptom rather than a specific health condition, a healthcare provider will likely order medical tests if you have this symptom. Those tests can pinpoint the cause of the pain, ensure that it isn’t another condition or problem, and help guide treatment.
The following tests are possible if you have intermittent claudication:
A physical examination is where a healthcare provider looks at various parts of your body for any visible signs of a problem. Along with a visual examination, they will also feel for pulses in your legs and feet and listen to those pulses with a stethoscope. A key sign they’re looking for is if the pulses in your legs or feet feel or sound weaker than normal or are impossible to feel or hear.
The ankle-brachial index (ABI) test measures and compares the blood pressure in your ankle and your arm. If the ankle pressure reading is lower than the arm reading by a wide enough margin, that may mean you have claudication in one or both legs.
In many cases, healthcare providers will measure those pressures, have you walk on a treadmill, and then take the measurements again after you finish walking. Comparing those measurements can help determine the severity of the problem (if you have it).
This test involves a liquid, called contrast, injected into an artery in the area(s) where intermittent claudication is possible. That contrast is bright and visible on an X-ray and can show healthcare providers the circulation in that area. They can also often see decreases in circulation that happen with intermittent claudication.
In some cases, healthcare providers may try other imaging tests that can help with determining the underlying cause of intermittent claudication. These include:
Claudication treatment can take various forms, all of which focus on improving the circulation in the areas where you feel pain. Unfortunately, claudication also increases your risk for serious heart and circulatory problems, which is why treatment usually involves preventive measures to avoid those complications.
Possible treatments include the ones seen below.
Drugs can often play a major role in treating intermittent claudication. These drugs typically help improve circulation or prevent serious problems that are more likely because of claudication. These usually include:
Revascularization procedures, which restore blood flow, may relieve or reduce the pain from intermittent claudication. Possible procedures include the following:
You can do several things to limit how often you experience intermittent claudication and reduce the severity of the pain.
Many of the items listed above that you can do at home to help this problem are also useful for preventing intermittent claudication. While it’s not always possible to prevent it completely, it may be possible to delay when it develops. That’s important because intermittent claudication is a symptom of PAD, which can significantly increase your risk of problems like heart disease, heart attack, stroke and more.
The most important preventive measures include:
If you have intermittent claudication, early diagnosis and treatment are very important to avoid or limit serious problems in the future. Several conditions have similar symptoms to intermittent claudication but are much more serious. These include chronic compartment syndrome, deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and popliteal artery entrapment syndrome (PAES).
If you already know you have intermittent claudication, your healthcare provider is the best person to explain possible trouble signs, including those needing emergency care. They are the best ones to offer guidance that best matches your situations and needs. In general, the following are signs that you need to call your doctor:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Intermittent claudication is usually not dangerous on its own, but it can be a symptom of serious health conditions and problems. It also increases the chances of developing other problems in the future (especially without treatment). If you have symptoms of this condition, it's important to see a healthcare provider who can evaluate these symptoms. With quick diagnosis and care, it's possible to keep this condition from becoming severe or causing severe disruptions in your life.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/05/2021.
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