Peripheral Arterial Disease: The Complete Guide

What is Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)?

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a disease of the legs and lower extremities that occurs due to a blockage or narrowing of the arteries that supply blood. The blockage or narrowing typically happens due to a build-up of fatty plaque along the artery walls. Although this can occur in any of your body’s blood vessels, it is less common to develop this condition in your upper body.

PAD is slightly more common in men than women and significantly more common in older people than younger people. In fact, up to 20 percent of the population over age 60 has a mild to severe case of PAD. The condition is also more common in people with African-American heritage than it is among Hispanic and caucasian people. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that only 25 percent of adults in the United States know that this condition exists.

Risk Factors for Developing PAD

The first indications that something might be wrong include pain, fatigue, or cramping in the lower legs or muscles in the hips when walking, exercising, or climbing stairs. The discomfort usually goes away upon stopping these activities and relaxing.

A diagnosis of atherosclerosis is one of the primary risk factors for developing PAD. The term means that plaque formations have already built up along the walls of the arteries in your body. Cholesterol, fat deposits, and other substances found in food make up the formations of plaque. Not only can the presence of plaque cause a narrowing of the arteries, it can also cause the formation of a blood clot. This occurs when the plaque becomes brittle or inflamed and ruptures.

Other risk factors associated with developing PAD include:

  • Tobacco use
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol

The good news is that you can control some of your risk factors with lifestyle changes and medication. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, for example, be sure to follow your doctor’s advice and take prescription medication as directed.

If you smoke or use any form of tobacco and need help quitting, ask your doctor for resources or check the website of United Hospital Center (UHC). This article outlines helpful tips for smokers who have tried to quit before, resumed the habit, and need help in quitting for good. While you cannot control your age or ethnicity, focusing on what you can change will help you stay positive and feel better.

Signs and Symptoms That Could Indicate PAD

The classic indication of this disease is discomfort with walking or climbing. However, up to 40 percent of people eventually diagnosed with PAD never complain of that problem. If you do have pain associated with PAD, it is most likely to show up in your legs, hips, buttocks, calves, or thighs. The medical term for this discomfort is claudication.

Other common symptoms of this condition include:

  • Absent or decreased pulse in the feet
  • Hair loss on the affected extremity
  • Muscle atrophy (deterioration)
  • Skin appears smooth and shiny
  • Skin feels cool when you touch it, especially immediately after walking
  • Sores on legs or feet
  • Toes feel cold or numb
  • Ulcers that don’t heal

The presence of some of these symptoms does not necessarily mean that you have PAD. However, we encourage you to schedule an appointment with your doctor at UHC if your symptoms persist. He or she will conduct an examination and may refer you to a specialist for further testing.

How Doctors Diagnose PAD

The ankle-brachial test (ABI) is an effective way to determine if you have restricted blood flow in your legs. The test measure blood pressure in your ankles and compares the reading to the blood pressure in your arms. The technician may do this while you are resting and again after you have completed some exercises. Your doctor at UHC may also order one or more imaging tests such as magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or computer tomographic angiography (CTA).

Detecting and treating PAD as early as possible is extremely important. Left untreated, it significantly increases your risk of cerebrovascular disease or coronary artery disease. These can eventually cause a heart attack or stroke. Treatment typically includes an aspirin regimen, taking anti-platelet medication, and lifestyle changes. In severe cases, your doctor may recommend surgery to create larger openings in blocked arteries.

PAD Prevention Strategies

According to the American Heart Association, exercise, tobacco cessation, and taking medication to prevent claudication is usually enough to slow or reverse the progression of PAD.

Consuming foods low in cholesterol and trans-fat is essential in the treatment and prevention of PAD. Your doctor is also likely to prescribe medication to lower cholesterol to support your dietary efforts. We encourage you to review this post from our website on how to eat a heart-healthy diet. Quitting smoking and managing other health conditions such as diabetes to the best of your ability are additional things you can do to avoid a diagnosis or limit the impact of PAD if you do receive a diagnosis.

We also invite you to take advantage of our partnership with Dare to C.A.R.E. and receive free vascular screenings, heart screenings, and educational material right here at UHC.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.