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A cardiologist holds a stethoscope to check her patient's heart rate and rhythm.

Peripheral arterial disease

Also known as peripheral artery disease or peripheral vascular disease, peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is plaque buildup in your leg’s arteries that carry oxygen and nutrient-rich blood from your heart throughout your body. The plaque is known as atherosclerosis and forms gradually along the artery walls.

The plaque buildups can also cause blood platelets to attach to the walls and form a blood clot. If your arteries become narrowed or blocked, blood can’t get through to nourish tissues and organs.

Symptoms of peripheral vascular disease

  • Early symptoms:
    • Intermittent leg discomfort, pain, or cramping
    • Numb, weak, tired, or heavy leg muscles
    • Pain in your buttocks or thighs
  • Advanced symptoms:
    • Aching pain in your feet or toes while resting
    • Cool skin on your feet
    • Redness or other color changes in your skin
    • Toe and foot sores that don’t heal
    • More frequent infections

Causes of peripheral artery disease

PAD is caused by plaque buildup in the arteries of your legs or arms, also known as atherosclerosis. Similar to atherosclerosis in your heart’s arteries, as plaque builds up in the legs and arms, the arteries become narrower and restrict blood flow.

Risk factors for peripheral arterial disease

  • Smoking. About 80% of people with peripheral arterial disease are current or former smokers.
  • Aging. People 50 years or older have a higher risk of peripheral vascular disease.
  • Ethnicity. African Americans have a greater chance of developing peripheral arterial disease.
  • Family history. Having a personal or family history of heart or blood vessel disease increases your risk.
  • Other heart conditions. Hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and blood clotting disorders all increase your chances of developing peripheral vascular disease.

Prevention tips for peripheral arterial disease

  • Manage your weight
  • Eat a low-fat, low-sugar diet, including at least five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day
  • Avoid using tobacco products
  • Exercise regularly, with your doctor’s approval

Treating peripheral arterial disease

Outside of recommending lifestyle changes, your doctor may prescribe medications or suggest surgical options to help treat peripheral arterial disease. The types of medications are used to manage various symptoms of the disease, like high cholesterol, hypertension, and blood clots.

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