Peripheral artery disease, or PAD, causes blockages in the arteries that carry blood to our extremities and vital organs. PAD is also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD), and we see the disorder most frequently in the legs of patients. The disease is very common in people over age 50; eight to 12 million people are diagnosed with PAD each year in the U.S.

PAD causes atherosclerosis, or a gummy plaque that builds up in the arteries. When the plague thickens it can impede blood flow and cause leg pain, ulcers on the legs, and problems with mobility.

What Is the Cause of Peripheral Artery Disease?

PAD can occur in older adults as a normal part of aging but it is usually associated with high cholesterol, blood pressure, or blood sugar from diabetes. Physical inactivity is a contributor to PAD, along with an unhealthy diet. Smoking is also a leading indicator that the patient may develop the disease.

What Are the Symptoms of PAD?

At first, you may have no symptoms of peripheral artery disease. If you have symptoms, you may notice difficulty in walking or stair climbing. Physical symptoms include leg aches and discomfort or cramping in the hips, legs, buttocks, or feet. Resting usually alleviates these symptoms.

If you have a sore on your toes or feet that won’t heal, PAD could be the underlying condition. See your doctor, because this can lead to gangrene, a serious infection.

You may also notice:

  • Color changes in the legs and feet
  • A sensation of coolness in the legs and feet
  • Deficient toenail growth
  • Loss of hair on the lower legs
  • For men, erectile dysfunction

How Can Peripheral Artery Disease Be Treated?

If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor immediately. You will work closely with a vascular surgeon to diagnose and treat the peripheral artery disease. The specialist will evaluate your family and medical history and give you a thorough physical exam.

The doctor may measure your blood pressure at your ankle and your arm. You may receive doppler study, CT scan, or angiogram to determine the location of the plaque build-up.

There are two primary ways to treat PAD:

  • Medical intervention that seeks to alleviate symptoms and stop the spread of the condition. This could include a lifestyle change such as quitting smoking or taking medications to reduce blood cholesterol. You may be prescribed aspirin or antiplatelet medications to improve blood flow. These interventions may slow the development of PAD or reverse symptoms.
  • Advanced medical intervention could include procedures to remove or open the artery blockages to enhance blood flow to your legs. Procedures such as balloon angioplasty, placement of a stent, or a bypass graft surgery may be used to clear or circumvent the clogged artery to increase blood flow.

One typical advanced intervention is an aortobifemoral bypass, a procedure to redirect the blood flow around the diseased areas of the artery. For patients like Ray, the procedure had him walking in a week with no pain or problems.

Can Peripheral Artery Disease be Prevented?

There are things you can do now to help prevent PAD before surgery is necessary including:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Controlling blood pressure and diabetes
  • Eating a low-fat diet
  • Engaging in regular exercise
  • Losing weight
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