Cutting Edge Treatment Actually Grows New Blood Vessels
You’ve probably see the TV commercials. A full minute of warning you that every ache and pain in your legs could be peripheral artery disease (PAD), followed by a plug for the latest drug and a high-speed listing of all the horrible side effects. They dominated night-time television at one point.
In case you’ve been lucky enough to miss these ads, peripheral artery disease is a narrowing of the arteries in your extremities. It decreases or even cuts off blood flow and is most likely to affect your feet and legs. And the bad news is this: in spite of my distaste for drug ads, it really is a problem, especially for diabetics. And as the country gets heavier and more people develop diabetes it’s becoming increasingly common.
At its mildest, PAD causes cold feet due to poor circulation. A moderate case may cause chronic pain and slower wound healing. At its most serious, it can lead to amputation. And no matter what Big Pharma has told you in its ads, there isn’t any truly effective treatment for it. There certainly isn’t a cure.
But that may be about to change.
What peripheral artery disease is and why you should care about it
It’s estimated that 8 to 12 million people in the U.S. have peripheral artery disease. That’s not surprising, since it’s caused by the same things as coronary artery disease—the most common cause of heart attacks—and cerebrovascular disease, which causes strokes. In reality these are all just different names for the same condition in different parts of the body. We’re talking about what’s commonly called “hardening of the arteries.”
Though we usually think of this condition as it affects your heart, it can occur in any blood vessel in your body. This includes everything from the largest artery to the smallest capillary. What happens is that fatty plaque builds up on the inside walls of the vessel. Like a pipe coated with sludge, the opening gets smaller and smaller. This makes it more difficult for blood to pass through. Eventually circulation to the affected area can be completely cut off.
When this happens in your heart, you have a heart attack. When it happens in your brain, you have a stroke. But when it happens in your legs—or arms—the symptoms are more subtle. They’re often dismissed as “normal aging.” Even doctors can miss the signs.
The most common symptom is discomfort in your legs when you exert yourself. This usually happens when you do things like walk or climb stairs. These activities may cause pain. Your legs may get very tired very fast. They may feel heavy or weak. You may notice the symptom in your calf, thigh, or even your buttocks. In any case, the feeling goes away when you rest.
This is because the affected part simply isn’t getting enough blood. When you walk or do some other activity that uses your legs, they’re even more starved for blood and this causes pain, fatigue, or weakness. When you rest, they don’t need as much blood flow so you feel better.
Poor blood supply can also cause cold feet. Other easily-overlooked symptoms are:
- Pain in your legs or feet that keeps you awake.
- Sores that won’t heal on your legs or feet.
- Losing hair on your legs or feet.
- Thick, discolored toenails.
- Pale, thin, shiny skin on your legs.
PAD is especially common in people with diabetes, and is the cause of most amputations. Just like with a heart attack or a stroke, when the blood flow becomes completely blocked, tissue begins to die, only in this case it’s the tissue that makes up your feet or legs rather than your heart or brain.
Given the right conditions, your body could grow new vessels in the area. This is actually fairly common in the case of coronary artery disease—the body often performs a sort of “natural bypass.” It grows new vessels that simply detour around the blockage. In the legs, however, it just doesn’t happen. And this is the problem that researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have tackled.
Current treatment is nothing but a band-aid fix
Conventional treatment for PAD includes drugs, physical therapy to improve blood flow, stents placed in arteries to open them up, or bypass surgery. Stents and bypass surgery are also commonly used to treat coronary artery disease, but research shows that they do little to prevent heart attacks. For PAD, they appear to be more effective but they’re still only a temporary fix. The Texas treatment is a permanent solution, and it uses the body’s own natural processes.
The treatment researchers are working on still has to be tested in humans, but has been successful in in animals. Because this is a huge problem for diabetics, they’ve focused on mice bred to have diabetes. It’s worked stunningly well.
The idea is to prompt the body to fix the problem naturally by simply growing new blood vessels. To do this, they created an injectable gel that uses proteins called growth factors—something a normally-functioning body produces anyway—to spur the development of new veins, arteries, and capillaries. They combined growth factors with another protein called syndecan-4, whose production diabetes interferes with.
In animals, the treatment restored 85% of blood flow. That’s the difference between having cold feet or aching legs when you run and actually losing a leg. It’s promising enough that the Defense Department has invested several million dollars in the project. There’s still a lot of testing to be done, and a lot of regulatory hoops to jump through. But some time in the near future we could see a treatment that actually cures PAD rather than just buying some time. And with luck, it will be free of the hazardous side effects of current drugs.
Of course the best treatment is prevention, and the steps you need to take to prevent PAD are the same as those to prevent heart disease:
- Don’t smoke and if you do, quit.
- Keep your blood pressure in check.
- Keep your blood sugar under control if you’re diabetic.
- Eat real food and cut the carbs, especially simple carbohydrates.
And don’t be sedentary. Exercise not only helps prevent PAD, it’s a useful treatment for mild cases. You don’t have to rush out and join a gym, but get some exercise every day. Go for a bike ride. Take a swim. Just taking a daily walk can make a difference.
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