Peripheral Artery Disease: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

We've written a guide to peripheral artery disease. Read about the signs and symptoms, diagnostic tests, and treatment for peripheral artery disease.

Your heart is under attack. More than 230 million people have peripheral artery disease (PAD).

The blood vessels in their legs are becoming clogged, threatening their overall health. But not everyone has to suffer from this.

You can take steps to prevent and pursue treatment for peripheral artery disease right now. The first step you should take is to inform yourself about PAD. 

What is peripheral artery disease, and what are its causes? How is peripheral artery disease diagnosed? What kinds of treatments can you pursue? 

Answer these questions and you can save your heart today. Here is your quick guide to peripheral artery disease.

Signs of Peripheral Artery Disease

Some people with PAD do not show any signs of a problem. They may not know they have PAD until they develop complications or have a medical exam. 

Other people experience pain in their legs, especially as they are walking. It manifests in the area near the clogged artery, sometimes in the calf or thigh.

The pain may feel like cramping, which can lead someone to believe they have a muscle strain. The pain usually resolves itself once a person has time to rest.

In addition to pain, a person may experience numbness or weakness in their legs. They may not be able to stand up for long periods of time, and their legs may fall asleep easily. They can also feel coldness in their legs or develop sores. 

Some people experience discoloration or hair loss on their legs due to their lack of blood flow. The skin can also become shiny. 

As PAD advances, a person may have pain in other parts of their body or while they are resting. Tissues in their legs may start to die, leading to gangrene and infections. Someone may have a heart attack, stroke, or embolism if plaque travels to their lungs or brain.

Causes and Risk Factors

The arteries are blood vessels that channel blood away from the heart. Blood should pass through the arteries without clotting or becoming trapped against the arterial walls. 

In PAD, the walls of the arteries are lined with plaque and fat. Blood flow becomes reduced, and clots can form against the fatty deposits. 

Some people experience a fat buildup in other parts of their bodies. Arteries in their neck or chest may have high amounts of fat, which can result in a heart attack. This is a condition called atherosclerosis, which can occur independently from or in conjunction with PAD. 

Inflammation of the blood vessels can also lead to PAD, as blood vessels narrow under stress. An injury to the legs or a misshapen bone can narrow the arteries and contribute to artery disease. 

When a person inhales cigarette smoke, their blood vessels narrow to prevent chemicals from entering the bloodstream. Smoking can cause the disease and/or make it worse, possibly leading to blood clots.

People who are obese and eat a diet high in cholesterol are at high risk for PAD. People over the age of 65 are also at high risk. PAD can run through families, so anyone whose parents had the disease should get tested for it.

Diagnostic Tests

Anyone at high risk for PAD who experiences significant pain in their legs should go to their doctor. Doctors can conduct a few different exams to diagnose the condition. 

A basic physical exam can indicate someone has a blood circulation problem. A doctor can take the pulse in their patient’s legs. A weak or absent pulse usually indicates that the arteries are narrow. 

They can also use a stethoscope to listen to the flow of blood. They can move the stethoscope up the leg, pinpointing where exactly the narrow places in the arteries are. 

If a doctor suspects PAD, they can conduct an ankle-brachial index test. They will use a blood pressure cuff to measure the pressure in the arm, then they will use an ultrasound to measure pressure in the leg. A major difference between the two confirms PAD. 

A doctor may conduct a blood test so they can understand what a person’s cholesterol and blood sugar rates are. A person may have diabetes or heart disease in addition to PAD.

Treatment for Peripheral Artery Disease

When managing PAD, a person needs to mitigate their pain and stop fat from building in their arteries. Mitigating pain may require physical therapy or a supervised exercise program. Someone can learn how to shift their weight so they don’t press down on their foot and tear a muscle. 

A person should increase their overall exercise routine. Once they can walk without pain, they should try going for walks on a regular basis. Even 15 minutes of exercise a day can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol rates and improve muscle strength. 

However, someone should know what to consider before they start their exercise routine. They should think about safe areas where they can exercise and how they can stay hydrated during their workout. They should talk to their doctor to get suggestions for their routine.

To stop fat from building up, a person should eat a healthy diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat. They should stop eating red meat and deep-fried foods. They should also take prescriptions that lower their cholesterol and blood pressure. 

On rare occasions, a person may need surgery to restore blood flow to their legs. In an angioplasty, a surgeon will insert a balloon into a narrowed artery and fill the balloon with air. This will expand the artery and crush the plaque against the artery wall. 

The Essentials of Peripheral Artery Disease

Peripheral artery disease is no laughing matter. Once the arteries in the legs fill with fat, a person can experience extreme pain and tissue death. PAD increases someone’s risk for a heart attack or stroke, especially if they are very old. 

But doctors can diagnose the condition with basic tests. Treatment for peripheral artery disease can start right away, and it involves exercising more and taking medications. Surgery is a rare step, and procedures are minimally invasive. 

PAD is just one heart problem you can face. Read more heart health guides by following our coverage.

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