Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries that carry blood to the head, organs, and limbs. The build up of plague within the arteries is called atherosclerosis.
- PAD usually affects the legs, but also can affect the arteries that carry blood from your heart to your head, arms, kidneys, and stomach.
- Blocked blood flow to your legs can cause pain and numbness called "claudication". It also can raise your risk of infection in the affected limbs. It may be hard for your body to fight the infection. If severe enough, blocked blood flow can cause tissue death (gangrene). In very severe cases, this can lead to leg amputation.
- The most common cause of PAD is atherosclerosis. The exact cause of atherosclerosis isn’t known. The disease may start when certain factors damage the inner layers of the arteries.
- The major risk factors for PAD are smoking, age, and having certain medical conditions. Your risk for PAD increases four times if you smoke.
- At least half of the people who have PAD don’t have any signs or symptoms of it. Some people who have PAD may have symptoms when walking or climbing stairs. These may include pain, numbness, aching, or heaviness in the leg muscles. Symptoms also may include cramping in the legs, buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet.
- People who have PAD are at increased risk for coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and transient ischemic attack. If you have PAD., your doctor also may want to look for signs of these conditions.
- Treatments for PAD include lifestyle changes, medicines, and surgery or procedures. Treatment is based on your signs and symptoms, risk factors, and results from a physical exam and tests.
- You can take steps to treat and control PAD and lower your risk for complications. Talk to your doctor about taking part in a supervised exercise program. This type of program has been shown to reduce PAD symptoms. Take good care of your feet and legs. See your doctor for checkups as he or she advises, and take all medicines as your doctor prescribes.
If you have leg pain when you walk or climb stairs, talk to your doctor. Sometimes older people think that leg pain is just a symptom of aging. However, the cause for the pain could be PAD. Tell your doctor if you're feeling pain in your legs and discuss whether you should be tested for PAD.
Smoking is the main risk factor for P.A.D. If you smoke or have a history of smoking, your risk of P.A.D. increases. Other factors, such as age and having certain diseases or conditions, also increase your risk of P.A.D.
If you have PAD, your risk for coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and transient ischemic attack (“mini-stroke”) is six to seven times greater than the risk for people who don’t have PAD. If you have heart disease, you have a 1 in 3 chance of having blocked leg arteries.
Although PAD is serious, it’s treatable. If you have the disease, it’s important to see your doctor regularly and treat the underlying atherosclerosis.
PAD treatment may slow or stop disease progress and reduce the risk of complications. Treatments include lifestyle changes, medicines, and surgery or procedures. Researchers continue to explore new therapies for PAD.
Other Names for Peripheral Arterial Disease
- Atherosclerotic peripheral arterial disease
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Vascular disease
- Hardening of the arteries
- Poor circulation
- Leg cramps from poor circulation
What Causes Peripheral Arterial Disease?
The most common cause of peripheral arterial disease (P.A.D.) is atherosclerosis. The exact cause of atherosclerosis isn't known. The disease may start when certain factors damage the inner layers of the arteries. These factors include:
- High amounts of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood
- High blood pressure
- High amounts of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance or diabetes
When damage occurs, your body starts a healing process. The healing may cause plaque to build up where the arteries are damaged. Over time, the plaque may crack. Blood cell fragments called platelets stick to the injured lining of the artery and may clump together to form blood clots. The buildup of plaque or blood clots can severely narrow or block the arteries and limit the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your body.
Who Is at Risk for Peripheral Arterial Disease?
Peripheral arterial disease affects 8 to 12 million people in the United States. African Americans are more than twice as likely as Caucasians to have PAD. The major risk factors for PAD are smoking, age, and having certain diseases or conditions.
Smoking is more closely related to getting PAD than any other risk factor. Your risk for PAD increases four times if you smoke or have a history of smoking. On average, smokers who develop PAD have symptoms 10 years earlier than nonsmokers who develop PAD.
Quitting smoking slows the progress of PAD. Smoking even one or two cigarettes a day can interfere with PAD. treatments. Smokers and people who have diabetes are at highest risk for PAD complications, including gangrene (tissue death) in the leg from decreased blood flow.
As you get older, your risk for PAD increases. Genetic or lifestyle factors cause plaque to build in your arteries as you age.
About 5% of U.S. adults who are older than 50 have PAD. Among adults aged 65 and older, 12 to 20 percent may have PA. Older age combined with other risk factors, such as smoking or diabetes, also puts you at higher risk.
Diseases and Conditions
A number of diseases and conditions can raise your risk for PAD. These include:
- Diabetes. One in three people who has diabetes and is older than 50 is likely to have PAD
- High blood pressure or a family history of it.
- High blood cholesterol or a family history of it.
- Heart disease or a family history of it.
- Stroke or a family history of it.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Peripheral Arterial Disease?
At least half of the people who have peripheral arterial disease (PAD) don't have signs or symptoms. Others may have a number of signs and symptoms. Even if you don't have signs or symptoms, discuss with your doctor whether you should get checked for PAD if you're:
- Aged 70 or older
- Aged 50 or older and have a history of smoking or diabetes
- Younger than 50 and have diabetes and one or more risk factors for atherosclerosis
People who have PAD may have symptoms when walking or climbing stairs. These may include pain, numbness, aching, or heaviness in the leg muscles. Symptoms also may include cramping in the affected leg(s) and in the buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet. Symptoms may ease after resting.These symptoms are called intermittent claudication.
During physical activity, your muscles need increased blood flow. If your blood vessels are narrowed or blocked, your muscles won't get enough blood. When resting, the muscles need less blood flow, so the pain goes away.
Other Signs and Symptoms
- Weak or absent pulses in the legs or feet
- Sores or wounds on the toes, feet, or legs that heal slowly, poorly, or not at all
- A pale or bluish color to the skin
- A lower temperature in one leg compared to the other leg
- Poor nail growth on the toes and decreased hair growth on the legs
- Erectile dysfunction, especially among men who have diabetes
How Is Peripheral Arterial Disease Diagnosed?
Peripheral arterial disease is diagnosed based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam, and results from tests.
PAD is often diagnosed after symptoms are reported. An accurate diagnosis is important, because people who have PAD are at increased risk for coronary artery disease (CAD), heart attack, stroke, and transient ischemic attack (“mini-stroke”). If you have PAD., your doctor also may want to look for signs of these conditions.
Primary care doctors, such as internists and family practitioners, may treat people who have mild PAD. For more advanced PAD, a vascular specialist may be involved. This is a doctor who specializes in treating blood vessel problems.
A cardiologist also may be involved in treating people who have PAD. Cardiologists treat heart problems, such as CAD and heart attack, which often affect people who have PAD.
Medical and Family Histories
To learn about your medical and family histories, your doctor may ask:
- Whether you have any risk factors for PAD
- About your symptoms, including any symptoms that occur when walking, exercising, sitting, standing, or climbing
- About your diet
- About any medicines you take, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines
- Whether anyone in your family has a history of cardiovascular disease
During the physical exam, your doctor will look for signs and symptoms of PAD. He or she may check the blood flow in your legs or feet to see whether you have weak or absent pulses.
Your doctor also may check the pulses in your leg arteries for an abnormal whooshing sound called a bruit. He or she can hear this sound with a stethoscope. A bruit may be a warning sign of a narrowed or blocked section of artery.
During the physical exam, your doctor may compare blood pressure between your limbs to see whether the pressure is lower in the affected limb.
He or she also may check for poor wound healing or any changes in your hair, skin, or nails that may be signs of PAD.
A simple test called an ankle-brachial index (ABI) is often used to diagnose PAD. The ABI compares blood pressure in your ankle to blood pressure in your arm. This test shows how well blood is flowing in your limbs. ABI can show whether PAD is affecting your limbs, but it won’t show which blood vessels are narrowed or blocked.
A normal ABI result is 1.0 or greater (with a range of 0.90 to 1.30). The test takes about 10 to 15 minutes to measure both arms and both ankles. This test may be done yearly to see whether P.A.D. is getting worse.
The illustration shows the ABI test. The ABI compares blood pressure in the ankle to blood pressure in the arm. As the cuff deflates, the blood pressure in the arteries is recorded.
A Doppler ultrasound is a test that uses sound waves to show whether a blood vessel is blocked. This test uses a blood pressure cuff and special device to measure blood flow in the veins and arteries of the limbs. A Doppler ultrasound can help find out how severe PAD is.
A treadmill test can show how severe your symptoms are and what level of exercise brings them on. For this test, you walk on a treadmill. This shows whether you have any problems during normal walking.
You may have an ABI test done before and after the treadmill test. This will help compare blood flow in your arms and legs before and after exercise.
Magnetic Resonance Angiogram
A magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA) uses magnetic and radio wave energy to take pictures of blood vessels inside your body. An MRA is a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
An MRA can find the location of a blocked blood vessel and show how severe the blockage is.
If you have a pacemaker, man-made joint, stent, surgical clips, mechanical heart valve, or other metallic devices in your body, you might not be able to have an MRA. Ask your doctor whether an MRA is an option for you.
An arteriogram provides a "road map" of the arteries. It’s used to find the exact location of a blocked artery.
For this test, dye is injected through a needle or catheter (tube) into an artery. This may make you feel mildly flushed. After the dye is injected, an X-ray is taken. The pictures from the X-ray can show the location, type, and extent of the blockage in the artery.
Some hospitals use a newer method of arteriogram that uses tiny ultrasound cameras that take pictures of the insides of the blood vessels. This method is called intravascular ultrasound.
Your doctor may recommend blood tests to check for PAD risk factors. For example, you may get a blood test to check for diabetes. You may also get a blood test to check your cholesterol levels.
How Is Peripheral Arterial Disease Treated?
Treatments for peripheral artery disease (P.A.D.) include heart-healthy lifestyle changes, medicines, and surgery or procedures.
The overall goals of treating P.A.D. include reducing risk of heart attack and stroke; reducing symptoms of claudication; improving mobility and overall quality of life; and preventing complications. Treatment is based on your signs and symptoms, risk factors, and the results of physical exams and tests.
Treatment may slow or stop the progression of the disease and reduce the risk of complications. Without treatment, P.A.D. may progress, resulting in serious tissue damage in the form of sores or gangrene (tissue death) due to inadequate blood flow. In extreme cases of P.A.D., also referred to as critical limb ischemia (CLI), removal (amputation) of part of the leg or foot may be necessary.
Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Treatment often includes making life-long heart-healthy lifestyle changes such as:
- Physical activity
- Quitting smoking
- Heart-healthy eating
Surgery or Procedures
Your doctor may recommend bypass grafting surgery if blood flow in your limb is blocked or nearly blocked. For this surgery, your doctor uses a blood vessel from another part of your body or a synthetic tube to make a graft.
This graft bypasses (that is, goes around) the blocked part of the artery. The bypass allows blood to flow around the blockage. This surgery doesn’t cure P.A.D., but it may increase blood flow to the affected limb.
Angioplasty and Stent Placement
Your doctor may recommend angioplasty to restore blood flow through a narrowed or blocked artery.
During this procedure, a catheter (thin tube) with a balloon at the tip is inserted into a blocked artery. The balloon is then inflated, which pushes plaque outward against the artery wall. This widens the artery and restores blood flow.
A stent (a small mesh tube) may be placed in the artery during angioplasty. A stent helps keep the artery open after angioplasty is done. Some stents are coated with medicine to help prevent blockages in the artery.
Atherectomy is a procedure that removes plaque buildup from an artery. During the procedure, a catheter is used to insert a small cutting device into the blocked artery. The device is used to shave or cut off plaque.
The bits of plaque are removed from the body through the catheter or washed away in the bloodstream (if they’re small enough).
Doctors also can perform atherectomy using a special laser that dissolves the blockage.
Other Types of Treatment
Researchers are studying cell and gene therapies to treat P.A.D. However, these treatments aren’t yet available outside of clinical trials. Read more about clinical trials.
Taking action to control your risk factors can help prevent or delay peripheral artery disease (P.A.D.) and its complications. Know your family history of health problems related to P.A.D. If you or someone in your family has the disease, be sure to tell your doctor. Controlling risk factors includes the following.
- Be physically active.
- Be screened for P.A.D. A simple office test, called an ankle-brachial index or ABI, can help determine whether you have P.A.D.
- Follow heart-healthy eating.
- If you smoke, quit. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking.
- If you’re overweight or obese, work with your doctor to create a reasonable weight-loss plan.
The lifestyle changes described above can reduce your risk of developing P.A.D. These changes also can help prevent and control conditions that can be associated with P.A.D., such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and stroke.
Living with Peripheral Arterial Disease
If you have peripheral artery disease (P.A.D.), you’re more likely to also have coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and transient ischemic attack ("mini-stroke"). However, you can take steps to treat and control P.A.D. and lower your risk for these other conditions.
Living With Peripheral Artery Disease Symptoms
If you have P.A.D., you may feel pain in your calf or thigh muscles after walking. Try to take a break and allow the pain to ease before walking again. Over time, this may increase the distance that you can walk without pain.
Talk with your doctor about taking part in a supervised exercise program. This type of program has been shown to reduce P.A.D. symptoms.
Check your feet and toes regularly for sores or possible infections. Wear comfortable shoes that fit well. Maintain good foot hygiene and have professional medical treatment for corns, bunions, or calluses.
Ongoing Health Care Needs and Lifestyle Changes
See your doctor for checkups as he or she advises. If you have P.A.D. without symptoms, you still should see your doctor regularly. Take all medicines as your doctor prescribes.
Heart-healthy lifestyle changes can help prevent or delay P.A.D. and other related problems, such as coronary heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and transient ischemic attack. Heart-healthy lifestyle changes include physical activity, quitting smoking, and heart-healthy eating.
Reference: The National Heart, Blood, and Lung Institute.
Last updated May 2, 2017