Peripheral arterial disease

Introduction

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a common condition in which a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries restricts blood supply to leg muscles. It is also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD).

Although many people with PAD have no symptoms, some people have painful aching in their legs brought on by walking. These aches will usually disappear after a few minutes of resting.

Read more about symptoms of peripheral arterial disease.

If you experience recurring leg pain with exercise, see your GP. PAD is usually diagnosed through a physical examination by your GP.

They will also measure the blood pressure in your leg, using the ankle brachial pressure index (ABPI). This involves comparing blood pressure readings from your arm and your ankle. A difference between these readings may indicate PAD.

Read more about diagnosing peripheral arterial disease.

Why does it happen?

Peripheral arterial disease is a cardiovascular disease, meaning it affects blood vessels. It is usually caused by a build-up of fatty deposits in the walls of the leg arteries. The fatty deposits, called atheroma, are made up of cholesterol and other waste substances.

The build-up of atheroma on the walls of the arteries makes the arteries narrower and restricts the flow of blood to the legs. This process is called atherosclerosis.

Read more about the causes of peripheral arterial disease.

Who is affected?

Rates of PAD are strongly associated with older age. It is estimated that it develops in:

  • 2.5% of people aged under 60
  • 8.3% of people aged 60–69
  • 19% of people aged over 70

Men are more likely to develop the symptoms of PAD earlier in life than women.

There are certain things that can increase your chances of developing PAD and other cardiovascular diseases, including:

Treating and preventing peripheral arterial disease

PAD is largely treated through medication and lifestyle changes.

Completely stopping smoking and getting regular exercise are the main lifestyle changes that can ease the symptoms of PAD and reduce the chances of the condition worsening.

The underlying causes should also be treated, such as reducing high blood pressure and cholesterol, and treating diabetes. Medication can be used to improve blood flow. In some cases, surgery may be needed to treat PAD.

Read more about treatments for peripheral arterial disease and preventing peripheral arterial disease.

Complications of peripheral arterial disease

While PAD is not immediately life-threatening, the process of atherosclerosis that causes it can lead to serious problems.

Having PAD means you have a much higher risk of developing other serious cardiovascular diseases, such as:

  • coronary heart disease – a condition where the supply of blood to the heart is restricted, putting you at risk of a heart attack
  • stroke 

Also, if the symptoms of PAD worsen, there is a risk that tissue of the lower leg will begin to die (this is known as gangrene), which in severe cases requires the lower leg to be amputated.

Read more about the complications of peripheral arterial disease.

If treatment is successful, and lifestyle changes are maintained, your situation will usually improve.

However, if you are unable or unwilling to make lifestyle changes, especially if your leg pain is getting worse, it is estimated there is a:

  • one-in-five chance you will experience a non-fatal heart attack or stroke
  • 5% chance that one or both of your legs will need to be amputated
  • one-in-three chance you will die prematurely


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