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Neuropathy or poor circulation: Diagnosing the difference

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Neuropathy or poor circulation: Diagnosing the difference

Peripheral neuropathy is a condition that involves damage to the nerves in your feet. Symptoms include muscle cramping, difficulty walking, burning, tingling, numbness, and pain in the legs or feet. In many cases, it’s caused by diabetes, but poor circulation can also cause these symptoms or make them worse.

“People think they need to learn to live with leg cramps, tingling, pain or loss of feeling in their feet because they’ve been told there is nothing they can do or the medication they are taking isn’t working,” says Dr. Ryan O’Hara, MD, of Comprehensive Integrated Care in Murray, Utah. “The thing is these symptoms are very similar to those of peripheral artery disease or PAD. They are so similar that in many cases people are given a diagnosis of neuropathy when it may not be.”

Poor circulation or PAD (peripheral artery disease) is caused by the buildup of fatty material inside the arteries which hardens into plaque. When this occurs, it limits the amount of blood that travels through the body. “Blood brings oxygen and nutrients to your legs and feet which they need to stay healthy,” explains Dr. Brian Evans, MD of Comprehensive Integrated Care (CIC) in Reno, Nevada. “When your feet aren’t getting an adequate supply, they start sending signals such as pain or cramping, or you may have sores that won’t heal. If we can increase the circulation, oxygen and nutrition can get to the affected nerves and regeneration may occur.”

Sores that are not able to heal put you at risk for amputation. “When you have a slow healing wound by definition you have decreased oxygen and nutrition, both of which are essential to stop the degenerative process and initiate a regenerative healing process,” explains O’Hara. “You need blood flow to deliver antibiotics, oxygen and nutrition that are required for proper healing.”

Ignoring the symptoms is what leads to problems. Early diagnosis and treatment are vital. “PAD is often called 'the silent killer' because you may have it and not even know,” says Evans. “The reason PAD is sometimes missed is because it sneaks up on us. Patients will come in with some pain and difficulty walking a normal distance which they write off as getting older.”

The good news is PAD is very treatable. Specialists like Dr. Evans and Dr. O’Hara are able to treat PAD with a minimally invasive procedure in an office setting. Using x-ray imaging, they are able to go into the bloodstream through a tiny nick in the skin to see if there is any plaque buildup. ““Using image guidance and a catheter, that’s a thin flexible tube that travels through the bloodstream, we’re able to see if there is a blockage and then remove it with special instruments,” explains Dr. O’Hara. “Once the blockage is gone, blood flow improves.”

Getting the proper diagnosis is the first step to getting better. If you think you may be suffering from neuropathy or poor circulation, make an appointment to see a doctor. Or, if you’re not finding relief from medication or treatment, a second opinion may be helpful.

“If your feet feel numb, you can’t walk to the mailbox without taking a break, start asking questions, like Could this be due to lack of blood flow to my feet? What can we do about this?” says Evans. His best advice, “Seek answers.”

Dr. Brian Evans and Dr. Ryan O’Hara are interventional radiologists who use imaging technology and techniques to care for conditions like PAD, enlarged prostates, liver cancer, PVD, compression fractures, and uterine fibroids.

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