Peripheral arterial disease (P.A.D.) occurs when plaque builds up in the arteries that carry blood to your head, organs, and limbs. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, fibrous tissue, and other substances in the blood. When plaque builds up in arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. Over time, plaque can harden and narrow the arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body. P.A.D. usually affects the legs, but also can affect the arteries that carry blood from your heart to your head, arms, kidneys, and stomach.
Signs & Symptoms
At least half of the people who have peripheral arterial disease (P.A.D.) don't have any signs or symptoms of it. 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 P.A.D. 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 P.A.D. may have symptoms when walking or climbing stairs including:
Pain, numbness, aching, or heaviness in the leg muscles.
Cramping in the affected leg(s) and in the buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet
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. About 10 percent of people who have P.A.D. have claudication. This symptom is more likely in people who also have atherosclerosis in other arteries.
Other signs and symptoms of P.A.D. include:
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
P.A.D. is diagnosed based on medial and family histories, a physical exam, and results from various tests. An accurate diagnosis is important, because people who have P.A.D. are at increased risk for coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and transient ischemic attack. If you have P.A.D., your doctor also may want to look for signs of these conditions.
Treatments for P.A.D. 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. Taking action to control your risk factors can help prevent or delay P.A.D. and its complications. You can take steps to treat and control P.A.D. 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 P.A.D. 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.