Thursday, October 2, 2008

Pushing through the miles and beating vascular disease

Every year Janice Williams, a 41-year-old dental assistant, runs a 10K to support breast cancer research. In 2001, she finished the race in just 46 minutes, 53 seconds. In 2006, her finishing time slowed down to over 1 hour, 7 minutes.

"That’s like a fast walk," describes Williams.

So what could have caused this athlete to fall to the back of the pack? Oddly enough, Williams had battled a cardiovascular condition during this time period - one severe enough to cause excruciating leg pain while running.

The first time she felt the unnerving leg pain was at the end of the 10K, just as she rounded the corner to the finish line. In the midst of training for another half marathon that January, Williams deemed her condition to be compartment syndrome, an orthopedic pain caused by excessive muscle pressure.

"I didn’t really find out what it was until 2006, and I [ran] everywhere," admits Williams.

Stumbling upon an article in Runner’s World magazine, Williams learned that there are doctors who specialize in medical conditions effecting runners. So she consulted a community physician who was known to go the extra step for athletes.

The trip paid off when her doctor discovered that the leg pain was actually a vascular condition. He then sent her to the Massachusetts General Hospital Vascular Center where Williams met Michael Jaff, MD, and Kenneth Rosenfield, MD, two vascular specialists who could provide advanced treatment.

"At this point the condition was so bad that I couldn’t run up a flight of stairs. It felt like my muscle would turn to a board, to stone - a radiant, deep pain where my mind would say 'stop.'"

Williams had a buildup of scar tissue in her illiac artery, and these adhesions were blocking her blood flow. Commonly seen in endurance cyclists, this vascular condition is rarer in runners, but nonetheless capable of occurring.

"I actually saw it on the MRI, and it looked like the artery went from being an earthworm to a piece of vermicelli and then back to the worm," explains Williams.

Admittedly nosy, Williams stayed awake during her stent procedure at Mass General and enjoyed learning the intricacies of her condition, one that could have caused poor circulation over time.

Following her surgery, Drs. Jaff and Rosenfield advised Williams to rest for a mere 10 to 12 days. With good intentions, on the fourth day she went for a light walk along her hometown beach. In a matter of minutes she picked up the pace and broke out into a full, pain-free run.

A couple years later, Williams is working on bringing her run time back down. This October she hopes to complete her yearly 10K int an 8 minute mile, finishing in about 48 minutes. A passionate athlete, she now has the ability to accomplish this goal - pain free.

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