Lynn Amos, a retired city clerk in Greenville, Mississippi, has lived with diabetes for nearly 50 years. So she’s long known to watch her insulin levels, eat healthy and exercise regularly.
But no doctor had ever explained to the 73-year-old that diabetes put her at greater risk of developing peripheral artery disease, or PAD, a narrowing of the peripheral arteries that carry blood away from the heart to other parts of the body. The most common type is lower-extremity PAD, in which blood flow is reduced to the legs and feet. In extreme cases, it can lead to amputation.
PAD affects more than 8.5 million people in the U.S. But the disease is underdiagnosed and often takes years before doctors discover the cause of symptoms, which include burning, aching, cramping, numbness, fatigue or discomfort in the leg or hip muscles while walking.
Amos learned about PAD in 2017 after getting an angiogram and ultrasound of her legs during a health fair.
“I really think doctors need to screen for peripheral artery disease as part of the annual physical,” Amos said. “If I would have had that done, I could have been diagnosed years earlier.”
Besides diabetes, Amos had other risk factors for PAD, including high blood pressure. And as an African American, she’s twice as likely as non-Hispanic white adults to develop the disease.
“I remember being scared when I realized how serious this was, and more scared when I saw that it could lead to amputation,” Amos said.
Each year, about 150,000 leg amputations are performed in the U.S., most occurring in people with diabetes and PAD. But many amputations aren’t necessary and can often be prevented with lifestyle changes, such as a daily walking regimen that can improve circulation in the legs.
For Amos, her disease took a turn in 2018 when a nail was cut too short during a pedicure. That led to a sore in her toe, which became infected because of her circulation issues. The toe became so infected that the only option was to amputate it, although, luckily, the surgery has not affected her mobility. The amputation was followed by angioplasties that put stents in both legs to improve circulation.
Today, Amos is thankful for her doctor who took a conservative approach to amputation — she said the missing toe is barely noticeable — and is focused on living healthy. She eats a diet high in vegetables, makes her own green juices and walks at least three to four times a week.
“I’m not an angel,” Amos said. “I’m not saying I exercise all the time, but way more than before. I’m motivated because I don’t want another amputation.”
Amos, who serves on the American Heart Association’s Patient Advisory Board, urges anyone experiencing pain in their legs to ask their primary care doctor to screen for peripheral artery disease.
“There are still a lot of people out there who don’t understand how peripheral artery disease can impact them,” said Amos, noting that people with the condition can have long, active lives. “An earlier diagnosis can save lives.”