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Peripheral Artery Disease Explained

Peripheral artery disease, also referred to as PAD, is a circulatory disorder that affects blood flow to the legs and arms. Over time, PAD causes the tissues in the legs and arms to die. Peripheral artery disease is a serious issue—if left untreated, many people will need their legs or arms amputated.

What is Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)?

Peripheral artery disease happens when plaque builds up in the arteries leading away from the heart, called artheroschlerosis. The plaque narrows the arteries, making it more difficult to deliver blood to the legs and arms.

As more plaque builds up, less blood is able to travel through the arteries. This cuts off some of the blood supply to the legs and arms. Over time, the lack of blood causes numbness, pain when walking, and tenderness in the legs and arms.

If too much plaque accumulates in the arteries, it causes a condition called gangrene, which causes the tissue to die. Because the limbs do not receive enough blood, the limbs’ tissues are unable to survive.

Symptoms of Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)

According to the Vascular Disease Foundation (VDF), many people do not experience symptoms. People who do experience it report the following symptoms:

  • Painful leg cramping when walking, called intermittent claudication. The leg muscles cramp when walking, limiting a person’s ability to move. Some people avoid walking because the pain is so severe.
  • Numbness, weakness, or an unusual heaviness in the leg or arm muscles. There may be a tingling sensation in the limbs. The loss of blood flow caused by PAD sometimes numbs the limbs.
  • A burning or aching sensation in the feet. Present in more severe cases of peripheral artery disease, PAD can cause pain even when people are resting. The pain increases during the night or while resting.
  • Abnormal color changes or temperature. Some parts of the legs or arms can change color or feel abnormally cold. Areas on the legs and arms can lose its normal color and look duller.

Only some people experience these symptoms of peripheral artery disease, however. PAD often goes unnoticed until it becomes too severe.

How Serious is Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)?

Peripheral artery disease is serious because it can cut off blood flow to the limbs, causing the tissues surrounding it to die. It also significantly increases the risk of developing heart or blood flow problems.

According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), PAD increases the risk for developing coronary artery disease, heart attack, and stroke. People who have peripheral artery disease are also six times more likely to die from heart disease.

Peripheral artery disease significantly increases the risk factors for other more serious heart and blood flow disorders, making it important to treat it early. Treating PAD also decreases the risk of developing other disorders.

Although peripheral artery disease is a serious condition, it is highly treatable. The key here is to treat it when symptoms first start, not when the pain becomes so severe that walking is impossible. Treating it early prevents further complications, including heart attack, stroke, and amputation of the legs or arms.

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