Q. After I retired last year, my wife and I began walking for exercise to help the back problem I have had for years. I have noticed over the past few months that I get a burning pain in my legs after walking about 10 minutes. It goes away if I rest but then comes back again. Is this something I should be worried about?
A. It depends on the position you use to rest and how long it takes for your pain to go away. If your pain goes away slowly when you rest in a sitting position, you may have a problem in your low back called spinal stenosis. Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of your spinal canal, which can happen with disc problems, bone spurs, tumors, or infection. This problem is much more common in elderly people (over the age of 60) but can occur in younger people who have abnormally small spinal canals from birth. The narrowing usually causes back and leg pain that gets worse with activities like walking. This explains why people with spinal stenosis often get relief when they sit down. The sitting position opens the space around the painful nerve root. As the pressure is relieved, leg symptoms tend to go away.
If you simply stop walking and the pain goes away quickly, the problem may not be in your back. It may be from a lack of blood supply to your exercising muscles, a condition called intermittent claudication (claw-di-cay-shun). Leg symptoms of aching, cramping, or tiredness usually start soon after exercising, and they go away quickly with rest (usually in less than five minutes). Unlike spinal stenosis, people with intermittent claudication usually get relief if they stop the activity, even if they do not sit down. The lack of blood supply is usually from hardening in the blood vessels that supply the lower limbs, a condition called arteriosclerosis (are-teer-eyo-skler-oh-sis). Whether your pain is from spinal stenosis or intermittent claudication, you should see your doctor.