Know the Signs of Peripheral Artery Disease

Many with PAD don't exhibit any symptoms

Peripheral artery disease is a condition that causes the buildup of a fatty material called plaque on the inside walls of the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the head, internal organs and limbs. One in every 20 Americans over the age of 50 has PAD.

In June of this year, research financed in part by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, revealed that fewer than a third of those with PAD took one or more medications to control it — high blood pressure medicine, cholesterol-lowering drugs or aspirin.

The buildup of plaque on the artery walls is called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. This buildup causes the arteries to narrow or become blocked, which can reduce or block blood flow. PAD most commonly affects blood flow to the legs. PAD is a warning sign that other arteries, including those in the heart and brain, may also be blocked — increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

“We think of it as a manifestation of a whole-body problem,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Reena L. Pande, a cardiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Blocked blood flow can cause pain and numbness. It also can increase chances of skin ulceration. If severe enough, blocked blood flow can cause tissue death (gangrene). As a result, PAD is the leading cause of leg amputation.

Both men and women can develop the disease. PAD can impair physical health and diminish the ability to walk.

The good news is that you can lower your risk for PAD. Taking steps to learn about PAD, including asking your healthcare provider to check your risk, can help save your life.

Risk Factors for PAD

Some conditions and habits raise your chance of developing PAD. Your risk increases if you:

  • Are over the age of 50.
  • Smoke or used to smoke. Those who smoke or have a history of smoking have up to four times greater risk of developing PAD.
  • Have diabetes. One in every three people over the age of 50 with diabetes is likely to have PAD.
  • Have high blood pressure. Also called hypertension, high blood pressure raises the risk of developing plaque in the arteries.
  • Have high blood cholesterol. Excess cholesterol and fat in your blood contribute to the formation of plaque in the arteries, reducing or blocking blood flow to your heart, brain or limbs.
  • Have a personal history of vascular disease, heart attack or stroke. If you have heart disease, you have a one in three chance of also having PAD.
  • Are African-American. African-Americans are more than twice as likely to have PAD as their white counterparts.

Signs of PAD

At least half the people with PAD don’t exhibit any symptoms.

Those who do may have pain when walking, climbing stairs or exercising. This pain may be relieved by resting. During exercise, your muscles need more blood flow to get more oxygen to the muscles. If there is a blockage in the blood vessels, the muscles won’t get enough oxygen. Exercising will not make PAD worse and studies show that a regular exercise program can improve symptoms. When you rest, the muscles require less blood flow and the pain goes away.

Other Signs of PAD include:

  • Pain, aching, and heaviness in the muscles.
  • Cramping in the legs, thighs, and calves.
  • A weak or absent pulse in the legs or feet.
  • Sores or wounds on toes, feet or legs that heal slowly, poorly or not at all.
  • Color changes in skin, paleness or blueness.
  • Lower temperature in one leg compared to the other leg.
  • Poor nail growth and decreased hair growth on toes and legs.

Leg pain does not necessarily mean that you’re suffering from PAD. Other non-PAD common causes of leg pain include muscle cramps, deep vein thrombosis, bone infection, joint inflammation, nerve damage, varicose veins, spinal stenosis, lumbar disease and osteoarthritis.

Based on content from the MedlinePlus article "Other Causes of Leg Pain."

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