What is peripheral arterial disease of the legs?
Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is narrowing or blockage of arteries that causes poor blood flow to your arms and legs. When you walk or exercise, your leg muscles don’t get enough blood and you can get painful cramps.
Peripheral arterial disease is also called peripheral vascular disease. This topic focuses on peripheral arterial disease of the legs, the area where it is most common.
What causes PAD?
The most common cause is the buildup of plaque on the inside of arteries. Plaque is made of extra cholesterol, calcium, and other material in your blood. Over time, plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, including those that supply blood to your legs. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking all contribute to plaque buildup.
If plaque builds up in your arteries, there is less room for blood to flow. Every part of your body needs blood that is rich in oxygen. But plaque buildup prevents that blood from flowing freely and starves the muscles and other tissues in the lower body.
What are the symptoms?
Many people who have PAD don’t have any symptoms.
But if you do have symptoms, you may have a tight, aching, or squeezing pain in the calf, thigh, or buttock. This pain, called intermittent claudication, usually happens after you have walked a certain distance. For example, your pain may always start after you have walked a block or two or after a few minutes. The pain goes away if you stop walking. As PAD gets worse, you may have pain in your foot or toe when you aren’t walking.
How is PAD diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk with you about your symptoms and past health and will do a physical exam. During the exam, your doctor will check your pulse at your groin, behind your knee, on the inner ankle, and on the top of your foot. Your pulse shows the strength of blood flow. An absent or weak pulse in these spots is a sign of PAD. Your doctor may also look at the color of your foot when it is higher than the level of your heart and after exercise. The color of your foot can be a clue to whether enough blood is getting through your arteries.
You will likely have a test that compares the blood pressure in your legs with the blood pressure in your arms. This test is called an ankle-brachial index. A test called an arterial Doppler ultrasound may be done to check the blood flow in your arteries.
Blood tests to check your cholesterol and blood sugar can tell whether you may have other problems related to PAD, such as high cholesterol and diabetes.
How is it treated?
Treatment for PAD includes ways to relieve symptoms and lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. Healthy lifestyle changes and medicines can help relieve symptoms and lower this risk. In some cases, you may need surgery or a procedure called angioplasty.
When you have PAD, you have a high risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Making healthy changes along with taking medicines can help reduce this risk.
- If you smoke, quit. It’s one of the most important things you can do. If you need help, talk to your doctor about programs and medicines that can help you stop.
- Eat healthy foods.
- Follow an exercise program.
- Manage your cholesterol and blood pressure if they are high. You may need medicines to help you do this.
- If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar in a target range.
- Lose weight if you need to, and maintain a healthy weight.
Your doctor may suggest that you attend a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program. In cardiac rehab, you will get education and support to help you make new, healthy habits.
Medicines and surgery
You may take medicine to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. These medicines help prevent blood clots, manage blood pressure, and manage cholesterol.
If lifestyle changes don’t help relieve symptoms, your doctor may prescribe a medicine that may relieve the pain when you walk.
For severe PAD, you may need a procedure called angioplasty or bypass surgery to open narrowed arteries or to reroute blood flow around them.
In rare cases, advanced PAD can cause tissues in the leg or foot to die because they don’t get enough oxygen as a result of poor blood flow. If this happens, part of the leg or foot must be removed (amputated). This is more common in people who also have diabetes.