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"This is a very safe, easy intervention that can be done at home," said study senior author Judy Muller-Delp, a professor of biomedical sciences at Florida State University.
"It has the potential to really improve your tolerance for walking and get you into a walking program," Muller-Delp said in an American Heart Association news release.
Peripheral artery disease affects more than 8.5 million Americans, according to the heart association. A common symptom is painful muscle cramping in the hips, thighs or calves when walking, climbing stairs or exercising. This pain often goes away when you stop exercising.
In this study, 13 people with peripheral artery disease, average age 71, stretched their calf muscle for 30 minutes a day using a splint that flexed the ankle about 15 percent.
After a month of stretching, the patients had improved blood flow, less pain, could walk farther in six minutes, and could walk farther before needing to stop due to leg pain, the study found.
The findings were presented Friday at an American Heart Association meeting in Minneapolis.
"A physical therapist can instruct you how to adjust and wear the splints correctly so you can do the stretches at home. There is no doubt about the benefit of exercise training on blood vessel health in [peripheral artery disease] patients," said study lead author Kazuki Hotta.
Hotta is a postdoctoral fellow in engineering science at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo.
"If you have limited walking ability, I recommend that you at least perform muscle stretches so you can gain enough comfort and confidence in walking to participate in a walking exercise program," Hotta added.
Research presented at meetings is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: American Heart Association, news release, May 5, 2017
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