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What Is Peripheral Arterial Disease?

Peripheral arterial disease (P.A.D.) is a disease in which plaque (plak) builds up in the arteries that carry blood to your head, organs, and limbs. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, fibrous tissue, and other substances in the blood.

When plaque builds up in the body's arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis (ATH-er-o-skler-O-sis). Over time, plaque can harden and narrow the arteries. This limits the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your organs and other parts of your body.

P.A.D. usually affects the arteries in the legs, but it also can affect the arteries that carry blood from your heart to your head, arms, kidneys, and stomach. This article focuses on P.A.D. that affects blood flow to the legs.

Normal Artery and Artery With Plaque Buildup

The illustration shows the ankle-brachial index test. The test compares blood pressure in the ankle to blood pressure in the arm. As the blood pressure cuff deflates, the blood pressure in the arteries is recorded.

The illustration shows how P.A.D. can affect arteries in the legs. Figure A shows a normal artery with normal blood flow. The inset image shows a cross-section of the normal artery. Figure B shows an artery with plaque buildup that's partially blocking blood flow. The inset image shows a cross-section of the narrowed artery.

Overview

Blocked blood flow to your legs can cause pain and numbness. It also can raise your risk of getting an infection in the affected limbs. Your body may have a hard time fighting the infection.

If severe enough, blocked blood flow can cause gangrene (tissue death). In very serious cases, this can lead to leg amputation.

If you have leg pain when you walk or climb stairs, talk with your doctor. Sometimes older people think that leg pain is just a symptom of aging. However, the cause of the pain could be P.A.D. Tell your doctor if you're feeling pain in your legs and discuss whether you should be tested for P.A.D.

Smoking is the main risk factor for P.A.D. If you smoke or have a history of smoking, your risk of P.A.D. increases up to four times. Other factors, such as age and having certain diseases or conditions, also increase your risk of P.A.D.

Outlook

P.A.D. increases your risk of coronary heart disease (CHD; also called coronary artery disease), heart attack, stroke, and transient ischemic attack ("mini-stroke"). If you have CHD, you have a 1 in 3 chance of having blocked leg arteries.

Although P.A.D. is serious, it's treatable. If you have the disease, see your doctor regularly and treat the underlying atherosclerosis.

P.A.D. treatment may slow or stop disease progress and reduce the risk of complications. Treatments include lifestyle changes, medicines, and surgery or procedures. Researchers continue to explore new therapies for P.A.D.

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June 2, 2014