Harvard Heart Letter

Exercise equals angioplasty for leg pain

The slow-but-steady approach has benefits the quick fix can't offer.

Leg pain brought on by walking or other activity, what doctors call intermittent claudication, is caused by the same process that underlies most heart disease and stroke — the accumulation of cholesterol-laden plaque in artery walls. As with heart disease, intermittent claudication can be treated with bypass surgery, artery-opening angioplasty, or a combination of exercise and drug therapy. And as with heart disease, research suggests that the slow-but-steady exercise approach is at least as good as faster-working angioplasty.

A Dutch trial compared the impact of artery-opening angioplasty with the effect of exercise therapy among 150 men and women with mild, moderate, or severe intermittent claudication. As expected, angioplasty worked faster, immediately reducing leg pain in 88% of the volunteers. At the end of one year, though, about 65% in both angioplasty and exercise groups reported less leg pain. Ten volunteers who underwent angioplasty needed a second procedure or bypass surgery, while 11 in the exercise group went on to have angioplasty or surgery. Improvements in quality of life were the same in both groups (Radiology, February 2009).

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »