Peripheral Artery Disease


Overview

Peripheral artery disease is a condition of the blood vessels that leads to narrowing and hardening of the arteries that supply the legs and feet. This decreases blood flow, which can injure nerves and other tissues.

Symptoms

The classic symptoms are:

  • Pain
  • Achiness
  • Fatigue
  • Burning
  • Discomfort in the muscles of your feet, calves, or thighs

These symptoms start during exercise and go away after several minutes of rest. At first, these symptoms may be present only when you walk uphill, walk faster, or walk for longer distances. Slowly, these symptoms come more quickly and with less exercise.

Your legs or feet may feel numb when you are at rest. They also may feel cool to the touch, and the skin may appear pale. When peripheral artery disease becomes severe, you may have:

  • Pain or tingling in the foot or toes, which can be so severe that even the weight of clothes or bed sheets is painful
  • Pain that is worse when the leg is elevated and improves when you dangle your legs over the side of the bed

Treatment

  • Balance exercise with rest. Walk or do another activity to improve circulation. Always talk to the doctor before starting an exercise program.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking tightens arteries, decreases the blood's ability to carry oxygen, and increases the risk of forming clots (deep vein thrombosis).
  • Eat a low-cholesterol and low-fat diet.
  • Medications may be required to control the disorder. Some of these include:
    • Aspirin or a medicine called clopidogrel (Plavix), which keeps your blood from forming clots in your arteries
    • Cilostazol, a medication to enlarge (dilate) the affected artery or arteries for moderate-to-severe cases who are not surgical candidates.
  • Surgery may be performed in more severe cases if the condition is affecting your ability to work or pursue essential activities, or you are having pain at rest. Options are:
    • Peripheral artery bypass surgery of the leg
    • Angioplasty and stent placement of the peripheral arteries (a similar technique to that used to open the coronary arteries, but performed on the blood vessels of the affected extremity)

Causes

Peripheral artery disease is caused by arteriosclerosis, or "hardening of the arteries." This problem occurs when fatty material and a substance called plaque build up on the walls of your arteries. This causes the arteries to become narrower. The walls of the arteries also become stiffer and cannot widen (dilate) to allow greater blood flow when needed.

As a result, when the muscles of your legs are working harder (such as during exercise) they cannot get enough blood and oxygen. Eventually, there may not be enough blood and oxygen, even when the muscles are resting.

This is a common disorder that usually affects men over age 50. People are at higher risk if they have a history of:

  • Diabetes
  • Abnormal cholesterol
  • Heart disease (coronary artery disease)
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Kidney disease involving hemodialysis
  • Smoking
  • Stroke

Tests & diagnosis

During an examination, the health care provider may find:

  • Weak or absent pulse in the limb (this is detected by a hand-held Doppler)
  • Loss of hair on the legs or feet
  • A whooshing sound with the stethoscope over the artery (arterial bruits)
  • Decreased blood pressure in the affected limb

When PAD is more severe, findings may include:

  • Paleness of the skin or blue color in the toes or foot (cyanosis)
  • Calf muscles that shrink (wither)
  • Hair loss over the toes and feet
  • Thick toenails
  • Shiny, tight skin
  • Painful, nonbleeding ulcers on the feet or toes (usually black) that are slow to heal
  • Blood tests may show high cholesterol or diabetes.

Tests for peripheral artery disease:

  • Blood pressure measured in the arms and legs for comparison (PVR sonogram)
  • Angiography of the arteries in the legs (arteriography)
  • Magnetic resonance angiography or CT angiography
  • Ultrasound (Sonogram) exam of an extremity

Prognosis

You can usually control peripheral artery disease of the legs with treatment. Surgery provides good symptom relief. Complications may require amputation of the affected leg or foot. You may be at increased risk for coronary artery disease.

Complications

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Blood clots (deep vein thrombosis) that block off small arteries
  • Impotence
  • Ulcers on the lower extremities
  • Gangrene

When to contact a doctor

Call your health care provider if you have:

  • Symptoms of arteriosclerosis of the extremities
  • New sores/ulcers
  • Signs of infection (fever, redness, general ill feeling)
  • A leg or foot that becomes cool to the touch, pale, blue, or numb
  • Leg pain that does not go away, even when you are not walking or moving (called rest pain)
  • Legs that are red, hot, or swollen

If you experience leg pain AND chest pain or shortness of breath, call 911 and seek immediate medical help.


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