What exactly is cholesterol? And how does it affect leg health?

There are some things that are known to be bad for your health, and having high cholesterol is one of them. But what exactly is cholesterol, and how does cholesterol affect leg health? Here's what you need to know about leg pain and how high cholesterol can exacerbate pain. 

What is cholesterol? 

The fatty substance that builds up in your bloodstream is called cholesterol. Having too much of it can harm your arteries because it causes blockages in the form of plaque buildup. This buildup prevents blood from circulating properly throughout your body. 

There are two types of cholesterol. One of them is the "good kind" while the other is the "bad kind."

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein) is considered to be the "bad cholesterol." LDL carries cholesterol to your arteries, where it can collect and cause blockages over time. 
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein) is considered to be "good cholesterol." HDL helps get rid of extra cholesterol in your arteries by carrying it away. 

cholesterol

High Cholesterol and Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)

If you have too much cholesterol building up in your arteries, then your arteries' lining develops a plaque layer called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is the buildup of cholesterol and other fatty substances. If you do not control the amount of fatty particles (triglycerides) in your blood, then blockages can occur, leading to an increased risk of heart diseases.

Having high cholesterol can also increase your risk for peripheral arterial disease (PAD). This disease targets your legs specifically, but if you have PAD, you likely have other blocked arteries throughout your body as well. 

Studies suggest that up to 12 million people suffer from PAD in the United States. And of the people who have PAD, 20 percent will have a non-fatal heart attack. The seriousness of PAD is enough to stay vigilant with your health. Here's what you need to look out for when it comes to having high cholesterol and leg pain

How Cholesterol Affects Leg Health

Showing certain symptoms in your legs can be an indication of PAD. Here are some common signs you should look out for. 

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Pain in Your Legs

One of the first common signs of PAD is having leg pain or discomfort. This leg pain, also called claudication, happens because your arteries are clogged, and there is not enough blood going to your legs. The pain or discomfort will often feel like a heaviness or a tired sensation in the leg. The pain can come on rather suddenly. If you sit down and take a break, the pain will usually go away, but if you continue the activity again, it will come back. Claudication can occur anywhere in your legs, including buttocks, thighs, and calves. It can also occur in one leg or in both. 

Nighttime Leg Cramps and Spasms

PAD can also show up in the form of leg cramps in your heel, toe, or foot. If you dangle your feet off the bed or sit as opposed to lying down and the cramping goes away, this can be an indication that you have restricted blood flow to your feet.

Changes in Your Skin and Nails

The lack of adequate blood flow to your legs can cause your skin and toenails to change in appearance. Toenails may become thicker and grow a lot slower. The skin on your legs might also get shiny while the hair grows back slower and thinner. Typically, you will notice these changes happening all together.

Changes in Your Skin Color

The color of your skin can be an indication of PAD. A simple test can help you determine if there's an issue. Simply raise your leg to restrict the blood flow, then dangle your leg off of a table or chair. If your leg turns purplish or reddish in color, this is an indication that the blood vessels are struggling to get circulation through your legs. Additionally, people who suffer from PAD may notice that their toes or feet are unusually purplish or pale when they sit down. 

Sores and Ulcers That Don't Heal

Restricted blood flow to your legs can cause ulcers and sores on your feet. These types of ulcers are a result of a reduction in your blood circulation. And because the ulcers have a difficult time healing on their own, they often require medical attention.

Weakness or Numbness in Your Legs

Another indication of PAD is sudden weakness or numbness in your legs. If you have the sensation that your legs can't support you or you feel numb, this might indicate poor blood circulation. The numbness or weakness can come on at any time regardless of whether you're sitting or walking around.

Atrophy of Calf Muscles

In extreme PAD cases, you might notice that your calf muscles are getting weak and experiencing atrophy. Atrophy is when the size of your calf muscle shrinks down. This shrinking happens because the lack of proper blood supply to your muscles reduces the number and size of your muscle fibers. In extreme cases, people who suffer from PAD will lose over half of their muscle fibers. 

Managing High Cholesterol to Reduce Leg Pain  

While PAD can be a painful and challenging disease to deal with, the good news is that you can do things to treat it. Here are five lifestyle changes you can implement today to reduce your high cholesterol risk and its effects on leg pain. 

  • Be Physically Active: Aim for two and a half hours of moderate aerobic activity a week to lower your bad cholesterol and high blood pressure. It’s especially important to exercise if your goal is to lose weight. Ideal activities include a brisk walk, swimming, dancing, or bicycling.
  • Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet: Avoid foods with saturated fat and trans fat. And incorporate fruits and veggies into your diet. 
  • Stop Smoking: Smoking contributes to clogged arteries. If you already have PAD, smoking may worsen your symptoms. 
  • Increase Your Soluble Fiber: Soluble fiber is found in oatmeal, kidney beans, apples, and pears. Soluble fiber works to reduce the absorption of cholesterol in your bloodstream. 
  • Use Medication: In some instances, you may need to supplement medication into your lifestyle changes to lower your cholesterol. Be sure to speak with your doctor about available options. 

Have you experienced leg pain due to high cholesterol? What did you do to solve the problem? Tell us in the comments!