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Peripheral Artery Disease

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What is peripheral artery disease (PAD)?

PAD is narrow, weak, or blocked arteries. It may affect any arteries outside of your heart and brain. PAD is usually the result of a buildup of fat and cholesterol, also called plaque, along your artery walls. Inflammation, a blood clot, or abnormal cell growth could also block your arteries. PAD prevents normal blood flow to your legs and arms. You are at risk of an amputation if poor blood flow keeps wounds from healing or causes gangrene (tissue death). Without treatment, PAD can also cause a heart attack or stroke.

What increases my risk for PAD?

  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Age older than 40 years
  • Heart disease or a family history of heart disease

What are the signs and symptoms of PAD?

Mild PAD usually does not cause symptoms. As the disease worsens over time, you may have the following:

  • Pain or cramps in your leg or hip while you walk
  • A numb, weak, or heavy feeling in your legs
  • Dry, scaly, red, or pale skin on your legs
  • Thick or brittle nails, or hair loss on your arms and legs
  • Foot sores that will not heal
  • Burning or aching in your feet and toes while resting (this may be worse when you lie down)

How is PAD diagnosed?

  • Angiography is a test that shows pictures of the arteries in your arms and legs. You will be given contrast liquid to help the arteries show up better on the pictures. The pictures will be taken with an MRI or CT scan. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell a healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • Doppler ankle brachial index (ABI) is a test that compares blood pressure in your ankles to blood pressure in your arms. This tells your healthcare provider how well blood is flowing through the arteries in your legs.

How is PAD treated?

Treatment can help reduce your risk of a heart attack, stroke, or amputation. You may need more than one of the following:

  • Medicines may be given:
    • Antiplatelets , such as aspirin, help prevent blood clots. Take your antiplatelet medicine exactly as directed. These medicines make it more likely for you to bleed or bruise. If you are told to take aspirin, do not take acetaminophen or ibuprofen instead.
    • Statin medicine helps lower your cholesterol and prevents PAD from getting worse.
  • A supervised exercise program helps you stay active in normal daily activities. Healthcare providers will help you safely walk or do strength training exercises 3 times a week for 30 to 60 minutes. You will do this for several months, then transition to walking on your own.
  • Angioplasty is a procedure to open your artery so blood can flow through normally. A thin tube called a catheter is used to insert a small balloon into your artery. The balloon is inflated to open your blocked artery, and then removed. A tube called a stent may be placed in your artery to hold it open.
    Coronary Artery Angioplasty (Balloon)
  • Bypass surgery is used to make a new connection to your artery with a vein from another part of your body, or an artificial graft. The vein or graft is attached to your artery above and below your blockage. This allows blood to flow around the blocked portion of your artery.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

How can I manage PAD?

  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can worsen PAD. They can also increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Manage other health conditions. Take your medicines as directed. Follow your healthcare provider's instructions if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Perform foot care and check your blood sugar levels as directed if you have diabetes.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. Eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables every day. Limit salt and high-fat foods. Ask your healthcare provider for more information on a heart healthy diet. Ask what a healthy weight is for you. Your healthcare provider can help you create a healthy weight-loss plan, if needed.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have any of the following signs of a heart attack:
    • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in your chest
    • You may also have any of the following:
      • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm
      • Shortness of breath
      • Nausea or vomiting
      • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat
  • You have any of the following signs of a stroke:
    • Numbness or drooping on one side of your face
    • Weakness in an arm or leg
    • Confusion or difficulty speaking
    • Dizziness, a severe headache, or vision loss

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have sores or wounds that will not heal.
  • You notice black or discolored skin on your arm or leg.
  • Your skin is cool to the touch.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have leg pain when you walk 1/8 mile (200 meters) or less, even with treatment.
  • Your legs are red, dry, or pale, even with treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.