Teri Mojgani, a retired librarian, has spent her whole life around books. She knows how to research any topic and what books might hold the clues to what she’s looking for.
But when it came to her own health issues, Mojgani, who is 73 and lives in New Orleans, was stumped for years by the strange pain in her legs, especially when standing.
She chalked it up to arthritis or, during a particularly acute episode, the result of being on a long flight. It was only when she enrolled in a medical study through Tulane University — more than a decade after first experiencing symptoms — Mojgani discovered she had peripheral artery disease, a disease of the blood vessels that causes reduced blood flow and frequently affects legs and feet.
“I would see my primary care doctor, but he kept saying that everything was fine,” recalls Mojgani. “Prior to a year ago, I knew nothing about peripheral artery disease. No doctor had ever talked to me about it.”
Peripheral artery disease, or PAD, affects more than 8.5 million people in the U.S., the majority of them 65 and older. African American adults are twice as likely to develop PAD than non-Hispanic white adults, and having diabetes or a history of smoking increases the likelihood of developing the disease. The most common symptoms include burning, aching, numbness, fatigue or discomfort in the leg or hip muscles while walking, caused when legs don’t receive enough blood.
During the medical trial Mojgani participated in, she was asked to walk a minimum of 200 minutes a week at a moderate to vigorous pace. As someone who didn’t exercise much, Mojgani worried whether she could meet the goal.
“At that point, if I walked for 15 minutes, the pain was a lot and I’d have to stop and I’d have to turn around and go home,” she says.
Yet, Mojgani persevered and walking gradually became easier. More importantly, the walks forced her to consistently get exercise, until she was clocking 200 minutes or more each week.
“The more I did it, the more I was able to do it. But more importantly, I realized that my pain was not just due to arthritis,” Mojgani says. “I’m a retired librarian with a postgraduate education and it took me a while to realize that I couldn’t rely on my doctors to just take care of my condition. I learned to look at it a little bit differently.”
A rare, but serious complication of peripheral artery disease is leg or foot amputation. An estimated 150,000 leg amputations are performed in the U.S. each year, mostly in people with diabetes and PAD. However, many amputations may not be necessary, so it’s critical to speak to your doctor about alternative treatments and get a second opinion.
Mojgani’s advice to anyone who may be experiencing a burning sensation in their legs or recurring leg pain is to see a cardiologist and get a second opinion. She encourages newly diagnosed patients to learn as much as possible about PAD and live a healthy lifestyle, including eating healthier, not smoking and staying positive.
“When my cholesterol got high, my doctor told me to walk, when he said I had hypertension, the doctor told me to walk, but it always felt formidable to me,” she says, chuckling. “Now, I believe that walking is a solution to many of our ailments.”
If you are experiencing burning, aching, numbness, fatigue or discomfort in your leg or hip muscles while walking, ask your doctor about PAD, ask to be tested and take steps to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle.