Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2004;69(3):533

What is peripheral arterial disease?

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a clogging of the arteries usually caused by atherosclerosis (say: ath-air-o-sklair-o-sis). Arteries are blood vessels that take oxygen-rich blood from the heart to all parts of the body. Atherosclerosis is a hardening and narrowing of the arteries caused by a slow build-up of fatty material in the walls of these arteries. In PAD, atherosclerosis affects the arteries of the legs.

What are the signs of PAD?

Walking or exercising increases the muscle's demand for oxygen-rich blood. PAD limits the blood flow to your legs. This causes pain in the calf or thigh muscle. The pain stops after you rest for a while.

Who is at risk of getting PAD?

PAD affects men and women equally. Major risk factors of the disease include cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and age of at least 40 years.

How does my doctor know I have PAD?

Your doctor may detect weak or absent pulses in the arteries of the painful leg. Using a stethoscope, he or she may hear a bruit (say: broo-wee), which is the sound of blood moving through a narrowed artery. You may have to have an ultrasound test to help locate the blockage.

How is PAD treated?

If you smoke, you should stop. Lower your cholesterol level. If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar level under control. A regular exercise program is necessary. You should walk at least three times a week for at least 30 minutes each time. Walk until you become uncomfortable. Take a brief rest to ease the pain, then continue walking. Medicines are sometimes helpful. Your doctor may have you take aspirin or clopidogrel (brand name: Plavix) to thin your blood. Ask your doctor if medicine is right for you. For severe narrowing of the arteries, you may need surgery to open them up.

Does PAD cause long-term problems?

PAD is a symptom of systemic atherosclerosis. That means that if you have PAD, it is likely that other arteries in your body are becoming blocked. In many parts of the body, these blockages may not be harmful or cause symptoms. But, if there is narrowing or hardening of the arteries that supply blood to the heart, it can cause chest pain or a heart attack. If arteries to the brain are affected, it may cause a stroke. Over time, PAD also can cause loss of feeling or weakness in the affected leg.

Where can I get more information about PAD?

Your doctor.

Vascular Disease Foundation

Web address:

Understanding PAD

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