Peripheral artery disease is a common circulatory problem in which the arteries become narrowed (stenosed) because of fatty deposits in your arteries (atherosclerosis). This condition can cause reduced blood flow to your legs.
When you develop peripheral artery disease (PAD), your extremities — usually your legs — don’t receive enough blood flow to keep up with demand. This causes symptoms, most notably leg pain when walking (intermittent claudicating).
While many people with peripheral artery disease have mild or no symptoms, some people have leg pain when walking.
Intermittent claudication symptoms include muscle pain or cramping in your legs that is triggered by activity, such as walking, but disappears after a few minutes of rest. The location of the pain depends on the location of the clogged or narrowed artery. Calf pain is most common.
The severity of intermittent claudication varies widely, from mild discomfort to debilitating pain. Severe intermittent claudication can make it hard for you to walk or do other types of physical activity. If peripheral artery disease progresses, pain may even occur when you’re at rest or when you’re lying down (ischemic rest pain). It may be intense enough to disrupt sleep.
Peripheral artery disease symptoms include:
- Painful cramping in your hip, thigh or calf muscles after activity, such as walking or climbing stairs (intermittent claudication)
- Leg numbness or weakness
- Coldness in your lower leg or foot, especially when compared with the other leg
- Sores or ulcers on your toes, feet or legs that won’t heal
- A change in the color of your legs
- Hair loss or slower hair growth on your feet and legs
- Slower growth of your toenails
- Shiny skin on your legs
- No pulse or a weak pulse in your legs or feet
- Erectile dysfunction in men
Risk Factors for PAD
- Over age 70
- Over age 50 and have a history of diabetes or smoking
- Under age 50 but have diabetes and other peripheral artery disease risk factors, such as obesity, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure
Diagnostic Testing for PAD
- Physical exam: Your doctor may find signs of PAD during a physical examination, such as a weak or absent pulse below a narrowed area of your artery, whooshing sounds (bruits) over your arteries that can be heard with a stethoscope, evidence of poor wound healing in the area where your blood flow is restricted, and decreased blood pressure in your affected limb.
- Ankle-brachial index (ABI) via Pulse Volume Recording (PVR): This is a common test used to diagnose PAD. It compares the blood pressure in your ankle with the blood pressure in your arm. To get a blood pressure reading, your doctor uses a regular blood pressure cuff and a special ultrasound device to evaluate blood pressure and flow.
- Ultrasound: Special ultrasound imaging techniques, such as Doppler ultrasound, can help your doctor evaluate blood flow through your blood vessels and identify blocked or narrowed arteries.
- Angiography: By injecting a dye (contrast material) into your blood vessels, this test allows your doctor to view blood flow through your arteries as it happens. Your doctor is able to trace the flow of the contrast material using imaging techniques such as X-ray imaging or procedures called magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) or computerized tomography angiography (CTA). Catheter angiography is a more invasive procedure that involves guiding a catheter through an artery in your groin to the affected area and injecting the dye that way. Although invasive, this type of angiography allows for simultaneous diagnosis and treatment — finding the narrowed area of a blood vessel and then widening it with an angioplasty procedure or administering medication to improve blood flow.
Non Invasive Treatment
Treatment for peripheral artery disease has two major goals. The first is to manage symptoms, such as leg pain, so that you can resume physical activities or to improve wound healing. The second is to stop the progression of atherosclerosis throughout your body to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
You may be able to accomplish these goals with lifestyle changes. If you smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of complications.
If lifestyle changes are not enough, you need additional medical treatment. Your doctor may prescribe medicine to prevent blood clots, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and control pain and other symptoms.
In addition to medications, your doctor may prescribe a supervised exercise training program to increase the distance you can walk pain-free. Regular exercise improves symptoms of PAD by a number of methods, including helping your body use oxygen more efficiently.
Angioplasty and Surgery
In some cases, angioplasty or surgery may be necessary to treat peripheral artery disease.
Angioplasty: In this procedure, a small hollow tube (catheter) is threaded through a blood vessel to the affected artery. There, a small balloon on the tip of the catheter is inflated to reopen the artery and flatten the blockage into the artery wall, while at the same time stretching the artery open to increase blood flow. Your doctor may also insert a mesh framework called a stent in the artery to help keep it open. This is the same procedure doctors use to open heart arteries.
Bypass surgery: Your doctor may create a graft bypass using a vessel from another part of your body or a blood vessel made of synthetic fabric. This technique allows blood to flow around — or bypass — the blocked or narrowed artery.
On your office visit, all of the options available for the treatment of PAD will be discused in detail for your particular condition.