What is peripheral arterial disease?
Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your organs and tissues. Peripheral arteries are the arteries in your arms and legs. Peripheral arterial disease is when an artery, usually in your leg, becomes partly or completely blocked. This blockage can occur slowly over many years, or all of a sudden. If blood can't reach parts of your body, the tissue dies from lack of oxygen.
Peripheral arterial disease is usually caused by hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis Atherosclerosis In people with atherosclerosis, patchy deposits of fatty material (atheromas or atherosclerotic plaques) develop in the walls of medium-sized and large arteries, leading to reduced or blocked... read more )
It's more likely in smokers and in people with high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol
Symptoms include pain or cramps in one leg that come when you walk and go away when you rest
With severe peripheral arterial disease, your leg may hurt all the time and you may get skin sores
If your leg artery is suddenly blocked completely, you'll get gangrene (death of tissues caused by a lack of blood) and need an amputation unless the blockage is opened up right away
Doctors give you medicines or do surgery to fix the blockage and ease symptoms
Go to the hospital right away if your arm or leg suddenly becomes painful, cool, and pale. Your artery could be blocked.
What causes peripheral arterial disease?
Peripheral arterial disease can happen when an artery:
Gradually gets narrower when fats or cholesterol build up on the walls of the artery (atherosclerosis Atherosclerosis In people with atherosclerosis, patchy deposits of fatty material (atheromas or atherosclerotic plaques) develop in the walls of medium-sized and large arteries, leading to reduced or blocked... read more )
Is suddenly blocked by a blood clot
What increases the risk of peripheral arterial disease?
The biggest risk factor is:
Because it takes a long time for the arteries to get narrow, most people don't have peripheral arterial disease before age 55.
Other important risk factors include:
Men and people who are obese have a slightly increased risk.
What are the symptoms of peripheral arterial disease?
Peripheral arterial disease is rare in the arms. Most often you'll get symptoms only in your legs.
If your artery is getting narrower over time, you'll have:
Painful, aching, cramping, or a tired feeling in your leg that happens when you walk and goes away with a short rest (intermittent claudication)
Later on, with more severe narrowing, you may:
Be unable to walk as far as you used to
Have pain even when resting
Have sores on your toes or heel
Have skin wounds that take a long time to heal
If your symptoms suddenly get worse, see a doctor right away.
If your artery is suddenly and completely blocked, your arm or leg will be:
Go to the hospital right away. A large blockage can cause gangrene (death of tissues caused by a lack of blood). If blood is blocked from getting to your arm or leg for too long, your arm or leg may need to be amputated (surgically cut off).
How can doctors tell if I have peripheral arterial disease?
Doctors will ask about your symptoms and do a physical exam. Doctors may also do tests, such as:
Checking your pulse at different places in your body (there will be no pulse below where the artery is completely blocked)
Oxygen tests using sensors on your skin to see if oxygen is getting to different parts of your body
Angiography Angiography Angiography is a medical test that takes pictures of your blood vessels using x-rays. The picture taken is called an angiogram. Doctors usually need pictures of only 1 or 2 blood vessels in... read more —sometimes CT (computed tomography) angiography CT angiography Computed tomography (CT) is a type of medical imaging that combines a series of x-rays to create cross-sectional, detailed images of internal structures. In computed tomography (CT), which used... read more or magnetic resonance angiography Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the Heart Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is a type of medical imaging that uses a strong magnetic field and very high frequency radio waves to produce highly detailed images, including of the heart... read more (MRA)—if doctors are considering surgery
How do doctors treat peripheral arterial disease?
To treat peripheral arterial disease, doctors use:
Medicines that help increase blood flow
Surgery to take out blood clots or bypass your blocked artery
Angioplasty Cardiac Catheterization Cardiac catheterization (also called cardiac cath) is a heart procedure done in a hospital. The doctor puts a thin plastic tube (catheter) through an artery and into your heart. Doctors get... read more (a procedure to open the blockage using a tiny balloon and keep it widened using a small wire tube, called a stent)
If the arm or leg has died or there's no way to get blood to it, it may need to be amputated (surgically removed).
Doctors may tell you to:
Walk at least 30 minutes a day, 3 days per week
Work with a physical or occupational therapist in a rehabilitation Overview of Rehabilitation Rehabilitation services are needed by people who have lost the ability to function normally or have pain. Loss of function may be due to fracture, amputation, stroke or another neurologic disorder... read more program
Avoid cold, which makes your blood vessels narrower
Avoid certain medicines that make your blood vessels narrower, such as some cold and sinus medicines
Take good care of your feet to prevent wounds and infections
How can I prevent peripheral arterial disease?
To prevent peripheral arterial disease:
Don’t smoke cigarettes
Control your blood sugar levels (if you have diabetes)
Lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels
Be active and get exercise