Getting cold feet? It could be an early sign of heart disease
Peripheral artery disease is growing more common in Singapore and cold feet can mean poor blood supply
Many people tend to dismiss cold legs or feet and aches and pains while walking as part of ageing, but it could be an early warning sign of heart disease.
As the combined leading cause of death in Singapore, heart disease and stroke are cardiovascular complications brought about by delayed treatment of coronary artery disease (CAD) or peripheral artery disease (PAD).
While CAD consists of narrowing or blockage of the blood vessels in the heart, PAD refers to the narrowing or blockage of the smaller blood vessels away from the heart, such as in the legs.
Dr Dharmaraj Rajesh Babu, senior consultant from the department of cardiac, thoracic and vascular surgery at the National University Heart Centre Singapore (NUHCS) told The New Paper in an e-mail interview that PAD is increasingly prevalent in Singapore today because of the ageing population.
Apart from the elderly, he said people who smoke and/or have other risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol are at most risk of developing PAD.
Dr Babu emphasised the importance of recognising PAD's warning symptoms, such as cold feet, to prevent escalation into heart disease or stroke.
He said: "Cold feet sometimes may be an indication that blood supply to the foot is poor.
"If you have blood vessels in the legs narrowed, there is a high chance that the blood vessels in the heart are also narrowed."
He cautioned that while most patients with PAD can be without symptoms, some can develop cramps in the muscles of the leg after walking a certain distance, which may worsen over time.
Patients with severe PAD may also develop gangrene in the toes or may have wounds that do not heal well.
Due to these cramps and pains in the legs, some patients may choose to avoid walking altogether.
However, Dr Babu often encourages them to stay active.
He said: "There is strong evidence to suggest that patients who develop cramps after walking, when put on a regular exercise regimen, their condition actually improves over time.
"It is also important to wear appropriate footwear."
Early diagnosis is important so that patients can begin the treatment process promptly.
The first step would be to control the risk factors and start the appropriate medical treatment to reduce the chances of a heart attack or stroke.
The second step would be to tailor the treatment to individual symptoms.
This may involve restoring blood flow by means of balloon angioplasty, which can help open up vessels.
Nevertheless, Dr Babu stresses that "prevention is still better than cure".
He said: "One must stop smoking and be active as we age, and also screen for chronic diseases at the appropriate age.
"If diagnosed with a chronic disease, one should also keep it under control. It is hence advisable to consult a doctor early."