Understanding Claudication

How does the circulatory system work?


Your heart is the pump for your circulatory system. It is made of muscle and is able to contract in order to pump blood through your body.

Arteries and Veins

The arteries and veins are the roadways through which blood is transported to all parts of your body. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood from your heart to the rest of your body. Veins return the blood to the heart after the oxygen has been used.


Your body needs oxygen in order to function. When you walk, your leg muscles need increased amounts of oxygen in order to do their work. If the arteries in your lower body are able to carry blood unimpeded to your muscles, then you are able to walk comfortably.

If you have blockages in your leg arteries, or in the arteries leading to the legs, you may not be able to get enough oxygen-rich blood down to your legs. The decrease in oxygen to your legs will often result in claudication or intermittent leg pain. It can be described as an aching, crampy, tired, and sometimes burning pain in the legs that comes and goes -- it typically occurs with walking and goes away with rest.

What is claudication?

Claudication is a term used to describe the discomfort felt in leg muscles that occurs when you walk because of a decrease of blood pressure in the leg.

What are the symptoms of claudication?

Symptoms may occur in one or both legs and they are most often described as cramps. They may also be described as a burins sensation, an ache, or a feeling of heaviness in the leg.

The most common place to feel the cramping is in the calf muscle, although cramping may also appear in the thigh or buttock.

Typically, persons with claudication will be able to walk a certain distance, say three blocks, before cramping becomes so severe they must stop and rest. When they have rested until the pain is gone, they may walk exactly the same distance again before having to stop and rest. The distance a person is able to walk varies with the severity of the blockages in the arteries. Most people with claudication experience no leg discomfort when they are at rest.

What causes arteries to become blocked?

Arterial blockage, or atherosclerosis, is caused by a buildup of fatty deposits on the inside of the arteries. This fatty buildup makes the artery narrow which reduces the amount of blood flow through the vessel.

How can I tell if I have arterial blockages?

Tell your physician about your symptoms. After your physician has spoken to you and has done a physical exam, you may need to have some testing done.

How is claudication diagnosed?

There are relatively simple tests that can be performed to determine whether your arterial blood flow is normal.

Arteries and Veins

During this test, the technogist will place blood pressure cuffs at several points along your legs and take the blood pressure using a Doppler. You may be asked to walk on a treadmill, after which your ankle pressures will be taken again to determine if the pressures decreased when you walked.

Ultrasound Scan

During an ultrasound scan, blood flow is evaluated and the diameter of the arteries is measured.


During an arteriogram, dye is injected into the arteries while X-rays are taken. The dye “lights up” the arterial system allowing the areas of blockage to be accurately pinpointed.

How is claudication treated?

With the information obtained from your diagnostic tests, your physician will be able to determine the best treatment plan and course of action to take for your particular situation. Whatever you and your doctor decide will be explained to you in full detail. This can include:

  • Angioplasty
  • Bypass Surgery
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Medication
  • Stent

What are the risks?

There can be some risk involved with certain diagnostic procedures, and in most cases they are relatively minor. Please ask your doctor to discuss the risks and benefits so that you are fully informed about any tests you may have.