Early symptoms of high cholesterol: Leg cramps, and heart problems

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Massaging feet and legs. Courtesy of Anete Lusina.

High cholesterol is dubbed as the silent killer and if not detected and managed in a timely manner can lead to serious health problems like heart disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that cholesterol is the waxy, fat-like substance made by the liver. Also known as blood cholesterol, it is essential for making hormones and digesting fatty foods. High cholesterol may not always present itself in telling signs, which can result in detecting the condition when it has already worsened the health.

Untreated high cholesterol can lead to plaque build-up in the arteries. Plaque is made from cholesterol and other fatty substances, and its build-up in your arteries can make them narrow. An abundance of cholesterol in the blood starts building up in the arteries and can result in constricted blood vessels that disrupt the smooth blood flow throughout the body, triggering the first noticeable sign, often seen in the legs. This is called peripheral artery disease (PAD),which is more common in the legs than in the arms.

Leg spasms or cramps are likely to be the first symptom of peripheral artery disease. These happen due to a sudden involuntary muscular contraction or convulsive movement. It feels like a clenched muscle that is very uncomfortable and painful. PAD can also present with intermittent claudication, which is pain and discomfort in the leg muscles that happens when you’re active and stops when you rest. This is usually caused by blood flow problems, which could be resulting from plaque-clogged arteries.

Pain or discomfort in the legs can develop due to multiple causes. However, leg pain can often be identified as being PAD-related if it develops with activity, goes away with rest, and returns when on the resumption of the activity. Intermittent claudication can also make the legs feel numb, weak, heavy, or tired. While it is most likely to strike in the calves, this pain can also travel to the thighs and bottom. The pain can be severe enough to limit participation in physical activities. PAD can also lead to a burning or aching pain in your feet and toes while resting, especially at night while lying flat.

Other symptoms include cool skin on the feet, redness or other colour changes of the skin, more frequent infections, and toe and foot sores that don’t heal. While leg cramps can be a sign of a raised cholesterol level, it may also be an indication of muscle overuse, dehydration and muscle strain.

Due to this silent nature, the best way to determine your cholesterol levels is through a blood test. According to the National Health Service in England, for the test, the  doctor will either draw blood from the arm or do a finger-prick test.

It is recommended that if patients have high cholesterol, their doctors should be consulted for necessary measures to be taken, such as cutting saturated fat from the diet or taking medicine known as statins- drugs that lower cholesterol levels.

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