Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(4):1034

See related article on claudication.

What is arterial disease?

Peripheral arterial disease is a problem of blood flow. Arteries carry blood to the muscles and organs in your body. When you have disease in your arteries, they become narrow or blocked. The most common cause of narrow or blocked arteries is fatty deposits. This condition is also called atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis means less blood is flowing through the arteries. It usually affects the heart, brain and legs.

What is peripheral arterial disease?

When atherosclerosis affects the arteries in the legs, the problem is called peripheral arterial disease (or PAD, for short). High cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes can all cause atherosclerosis.

Why do my legs hurt?

PAD cuts down the blood flow to the muscles and other tissues in your legs. Claudication is the name for the pain in the calves, legs or buttocks you feel when you walk. Claudication is the most common complaint of people with PAD. It's usually easy to know when the pain will happen. It happens each time you walk, at about the same distance. It goes away after a few minutes of rest. Some people also have cold feet, leg pain at night or sores on their legs and feet that don't heal.

How can my doctor be sure I have PAD?

Your doctor may suspect that your arteries have narrowed by listening to the blood flow in them, using a stethoscope. Then he or she may do some tests to see if you have PAD. Your doctor may also do tests to see if your other arteries have atherosclerosis.

Can PAD be treated?

Yes. People with PAD are often treated with diet and exercise, and sometimes medicine. People with PAD must stop smoking. It is important for people with PAD to bring down high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure, and control their diabetes. A walking program is helpful. You should walk at least three times a week for 30 to 45 minutes each time. Walk until the pain is too uncomfortable. Stop and rest until the pain goes away. Then start walking again.

Medicine can help some people. Ask your doctor if medicine is right for you. If your arteries are badly blocked, you may need surgery to open them up.

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