What is peripheral vascular disease?

Peripheral vascular disease refers to diseases of blood vessels that are outside of the heart and brain. It often involves a narrowing of vessels that carry blood to the legs, arms, stomach or kidneys. There are two types of these circulation disorders:

  • Functional Peripheral Vascular Disease—This form of vascular disease doesn’t have an organic cause. It doesn’t involve defects in the blood vessels’ structure, and the effects are usually short-term and spasm-related.
  • Organic Peripheral Vascular Disease—This form of vascular disease is caused by structural changes in the blood vessels, including inflammation and tissue damage. Peripheral artery disease is an example of this, which results from fatty buildups in the arteries that block normal blood flow.

What is peripheral artery disease?

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a condition that’s similar to both coronary artery disease and carotid artery disease. With PAD, fatty deposits build up in the inner linings of the artery walls. These blockages restrict blood circulation, primarily in arteries that lead to the kidneys, stomach, arms, legs and feet. In the early stages of the disease, a common symptom is cramping or fatigue in the legs and buttocks during activity. This cramping typically subsides when the person is still. This is called intermittent claudication. People who have PAD, often have fatty buildups in the arteries of the heart and brain. Because of this, most people with PAD have a higher risk of death from heart attack and stroke.

How is peripheral artery disease diagnosed and treated?

Techniques used to diagnose PAD often include the review of a person’s medical history, a physical exam, ultrasound(s), an x-ray angiography, and magnetic resonance imaging angiography (MRA). Most people with PAD can be treated by making lifestyle changes, taking medications, or a combination of both.

Lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk:

  • Stop smoking (smokers have a particularly strong risk of PAD)
  • Establish control over diabetes
  • Establish control over blood pressure
  • Be physically active (including participation in a supervised exercise program)
  • Maintain a low-saturated-fat, low-cholesterol diet

Treatment with medication often includes:

  • Medicines that help improve a person’s ability to walk further distances
  • Anti-platelet agents
  • Cholesterol-lowering agents

In a minority of patients, lifestyle modifications alone aren’t sufficient. In these cases, angioplasty or surgery may be necessary.