Are you at risk for peripheral artery disease, also called “PAD?” Depending on your age, lifestyle, and other medical conditions, you might have a higher risk and not even know it.

PAD can cause a range of symptoms — from leg pain with walking to foot ulcers — and can also raise your risk for heart attack and stroke. Find out about six major risk factors for PAD and what you can do to lower your risks.

Defining Peripheral Artery Disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) happens when the arteries in your legs become narrow, usually because of atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque on your artery walls. This restricts blood flow, allowing less oxygen-rich blood to reach your muscles and skin, affecting your ability to walk and heal wounds. Plaque can also rupture, leading to a blood clot that can further limit or even totally block the flow of blood.

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Symptoms of Peripheral Artery Disease

Many people with PAD have no symptoms, but the most common symptoms of mild PAD are:

  • Leg pain when walking that goes away with rest (intermittent claudication)
  • Increased fatigue and tiredness
  • Increased cramping in lower extremities
  • Decreased desire to walk or exercise due to pain

More severe forms of PAD can cause symptoms like:

  • Leg or foot pain at rest
  • Skin discoloration and coolness
  • Foot ulcers, or wounds that do not heal
  • Gangrene, or tissue death

If left untreated, PAD can affect quality of life and, in severe cases, even lead to limb loss through amputation. It’s also important to remember that atherosclerosis can happen in any artery, so if you have blockages in your legs, you might have them in other arteries as well. If the arteries in your heart or brain are blocked, serious and even life-threatening problems like heart attack and stroke can happen.

Peripheral Artery Disease Risk Factors

Anyone can develop PAD, but there are some factors that raise your risk, including:

  • Smoking: According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, people who smoke or used to smoke are four times more likely to develop PAD. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage your blood vessels, and when your body tries to heal the damage, plaque can form, leading to atherosclerosis.
  • Diabetes: Diabetes changes the chemistry in your blood and can narrow your blood vessels, making it difficult for blood to flow freely. People with diabetes are also at risk of diabetic neuropathy, or nerve damage, which can make it less likely for you to feel (and as a result, properly care for) scrapes, cuts, or other injuries to your feet or legs. Because your body relies on healthy blood flow to heal wounds, PAD can prevent these wounds from healing and lead to ulcers and, in severe cases, tissue death.
  • High cholesterolYour body needs some cholesterol to help digest food and make hormones, but having a high cholesterol level can lead to atherosclerosis. Cholesterol is made of fat, calcium, and other substances that can build up in the form of plaque in your blood vessels, restricting or totally blocking blood flow.
  • High blood pressureHigh blood pressure, which can raise your risk for atherosclerosis. High blood pressure doesn’t have symptoms, so it’s important to get regular blood pressure screenings to make sure your numbers stay in a healthy range.
  • Obesity: Being obese raises your risk for heart and vascular disease, including PAD.
  • Older age: Your risk for atherosclerosis gets higher as you get older, especially after age 50.

What Screenings Can Detect PAD?

Our highly trained technicians use the same type of ultrasound used for sonograms during pregnancy to examine your carotid arteries, abdominal aorta, and peripheral arteries in your ankles. Because conditions of PAD may go unnoticed until they are serious, regular vascular screenings, which don’t required needles or invasive testing, are a good idea for those who are at risk.

Lowering Your Risk of Peripheral Artery Disease

The more risk factors you have, the higher your risk is overall. Depending on your age, lifestyle, and other medical conditions, your doctor may recommend the following to help lower your risk:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Medicines to help control your diabetes, cholesterol level, and blood pressure
  • Having regular screenings to check your blood sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure levels, weight, and any symptoms of PAD

In some more severe cases, vascular specialists may recommend treatment. Fortunately, vascular procedures have become much less invasive than in the past.

If you are diagnosed with peripheral artery disease, your doctor will develop a treatment plan that helps manage your symptoms and treat the underlying cause. To learn more, contact the UPMC Division of Vascular Surgery at 412-802-3333.

About Heart and Vascular Institute

The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.