Peripheral Artery Disease

Sandy Tschosik, RN
St. Alexius’ Community Health Services Coordinator

Peripheral Artery DiseaseArteries are vessels that carry nutrients and oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to the rest of the body.  One of the most common areas where artery problems occur is within the heart. However, artery problems also are common in other parts of the body, such as the legs.

Peripheral artery disease or PAD, affects more than eight million Americans. PAD is primarily caused by the buildup of fatty plaque, which narrows or blocks the arteries that supply the legs with blood. Being diagnosed with PAD increases the likelihood that plaque buildup is more widespread and found in the arteries of the heart as well as arteries that feed the brain. As a result this increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

PAD may not cause symptoms at first, but as it progresses the arteries have a harder time getting blood to the muscles in the legs. The classic symptoms of PAD are cramping pain, burning or discomfort in the hip, buttock, thigh, calve or foot that occurs during activities such as walking or climbing stairs and goes away with rest.  Depending upon the severity, other symptoms may include:

  • Numbing and weakness to the affected extremity

  • Sores to the legs or feet that won’t heal

  • Shiny appearance to the skin on the leg with minimal or no hair growth

  • Color changes to the legs or feet

  • Legs or feet that feel cool to the touch

  • Weak pulses in the affected extremity

The risk of developing PAD increases after the age of 50.  Other factors that increase the risk of developing this disease include:

  • Smoking

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol or triglycerides

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Family history of PAD, heart disease or stoke

A common test used to diagnose PAD is the ankle-brachial index (ABI).  This is a simple, painless test that compares the blood pressure at the ankle to the blood pressure in the arm to see how well blood is flowing to the legs. If the reading is abnormal, a physician may recommend further tests such as an ultrasound or angiography, where dye is injected into vessels and its flow is traced using special x-ray imaging.

The treatment for PAD depends on the severity of the disease. Your physician will want to manage the discomfort and stop the progression of atherosclerosis to reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke. Treatment may include medications to control blood pressure, lower cholesterol and prevent clots. Surgery, such as angioplasty, stenting or bypass may be required if PAD is severe. It also is necessary to make lifestyle changes in order to manage the symptoms or reduce your risk of developing PAD:

  • If you smoke, make every effort to quit!

  • Eat a heart healthy diet low in salt, saturated fat and cholesterol. Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grain products.

  • Exercise daily.

  • Maintain a healthy weight and control your blood pressure.

  • If you are diabetic, control your blood sugar levels.

Do not dismiss leg pain as being a normal part of aging. If you have concerns, talk to your healthcare provider and get screened.