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Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)

Peripheral artery disease is caused by a thickening of the inside walls of the arteries of your legs. This thickening, called atherosclerosis, narrows the space through which blood can flow, decreasing the supply of oxygen and nutrients to the legs and feet. It can affect both legs, but most often symptoms begin in one leg.

Atherosclerosis usually occurs when a person has high levels of cholesterol, a fat-like substance, in the blood. Circulating in the blood, cholesterol and fat build up on the walls of the arteries. When the level of cholesterol in the blood is high, there is a greater chance that it will be deposited onto the artery walls.

Plaque formations can grow large enough to significantly reduce the blood's flow through an artery. When a plaque formation becomes brittle, it may rupture, triggering a blood clot to form. A clot may either further narrow the artery, or completely block it.

When that blockage occurs in a coronary artery, it can cause a heart attack. When it occurs in a carotid artery, it can cause a stroke. If the blockage remains in the peripheral arteries, it can cause pain, changes in skin color, sores or ulcers, and difficulty walking. Total loss of circulation to the legs and feet can cause gangrene and loss of a limb.

Some patients with PAD experience cramping in the arms or legs while moving the extremity. This cramping is called claudication. Claudication comes from the Latin word “claudicare,” meaning “to limp.” The discomfort usually occurs in large muscles in one or both legs during physical activity, such as walking. Not every person with PAD experiences leg pain. Some people may feel a tightness, heaviness, cramping, or weakness of the leg.

When people experience claudication, the discomfort tends to occur consistently each time a person walks a certain distance, and fades within a few minutes after a person stops to rest. Walking up stairs or uphill may bring on the discomfort more rapidly. As leg artery disease progresses, leg pain may occur at shorter walking distances. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 50 percent of patients with peripheral artery disease do not have the classic symptoms of claudication.

Other patients may have non-healing ulcers or gangrene. There are also some less-common symptoms that signal peripheral artery disease. It is important to visit your physician early for proper diagnosis. The most common symptom is cramping, pain, or tiredness in the leg or hip muscles while walking or climbing stairs. Typically, this pain goes away with rest and returns when you walk again.

Peripheral artery disease is usually diagnosed by a physical exam, ultrasound, or CT scan. All are simple non-invasive procedures performed by an interventional radiologist with minimal discomfort.

To learn more about PAD, visit our patient education library and contact South Florida Vascular Associates to schedule an evaluation with an interventional radiologist in South Florida.