For as much as your feet do for you, it can be all too easy to overlook them as you go about your day. But besides the typical aches, pains, and injuries, your lower extremities could also be telling you something about your health—especially after you go to bed. And if you ever feel one specific symptom in your feet at night, you should schedule some time to talk with your doctor about running a blood test. Read on to see what could be a nocturnal warning sign.
Despite how serious of a threat it poses, heart disease is a serious health condition that typically shows no signs or symptoms until a doctor’s visit or major medical event makes it known. But in the case of high cholesterol, one of the first warning signs may be noticing lingering pain in your feet and toes when you lie down at night to sleep.
While it may just seem like everyday wear and tear, a “burning or aching pain in your feet and toes while resting or in bed” could be signs of a medical issue known as peripheral artery disease (PAD), according to experts at Aurora Health Care in Wisconsin. The condition is a form of atherosclerosis—the term for the hardening and narrowing of the blood vessels due to a buildup of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad cholesterol” that eventually obstructs blood flow—that affects the outer extremities.
Experts point out that the pain experienced with PAD typically appears during physical exertion or exercise during its earlier stages—also known as claudication—making it easier to confuse for fatigue misdiagnose. But as the condition worsens and blood vessels continue to narrow, symptoms often begin to present themselves at night as spasms or cramps in the toes, forefoot, or heel, Darren Schneider, MD, director of the Center for Vascular and Endovascular Surgery at New York–Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells Healthline. And unfortunately, while the pain may seem like little more than an age-related nuisance, it could be a serious red flag.
“The effects of PAD can extend beyond the affected limb. The body’s circulatory system is interconnected,” explains the Cleveland Clinic. “Patients with atherosclerosis of the legs commonly have atherosclerosis in other parts of the body. Therefore, it’s not surprising that patients with peripheral artery disease are at increased risk for having a heart attack, stroke, transient ischemic attack (“mini-stroke,”) or problems with the kidney (renal) arteries,” their experts say.
While pain in your feet at night may be hard to miss, experiencing other symptoms along with it could be a sign that you should speak to your doctor. According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition can also lead to changes in the appearance of the legs that make them look shiny or blue. And besides the claudication you notice in your legs in hips after exercise, you might also feel “aching or cramping” in your arms during exertion if that’s where the blockage is located.
Eventually, some patients with PAD notice their affected extremities become colder and have a weaker pulse as circulation is gradually compromised. Others experience slower growth of their toenails that makes them thicker or sores on the legs, feet, or toes that do not seem to heal. Any of these are a sign that you should schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Even if you haven’t experienced any pain in your feet or toes at night, it can still pay to be on top of your cholesterol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 38 percent of American adults have elevated LDL levels in their bloodstream. The agency recommends taking a blood test at least once every five years to keep your cholesterol in check.
The agency says that you can also change your diet and lifestyle to help keep LDL under control. Often, this involves increasing your intake of high-fiber foods like oatmeal and beans and swapping out foods high in saturated fats for the healthy unsaturated fats found in foods like avocados, olive oil, and nuts. And according to experts, it may be worth it to stop putting off your annual checkup if you’re at all concerned: Early diagnosis can go a long way in reducing the risk of a serious health incident.
“If the patient follows doctor’s orders, he has a 75 percent chance that his PAD will not get worse,” Katherine Gallagher, MD, a researcher at the University of Michigan, told the Society for Vascular Surgery. “Exercise, such as walking on a treadmill, has been found to be an effective way to reduce pain, and in fact, supervised exercise has just officially been approved for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.”