What is peripheral artery disease (PAD)?

Intermountain Registered Dietitians
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a type of peripheral vascular disease caused by plaque buildup. It often affects the arteries to your legs and feet. It can cause pain that feels like a dull cramp or heavy tiredness in your hips or legs when you exercise or climb stairs. This pain is sometimes called claudication. If PAD worsens, it can cause cold skin on your feet or legs, skin color changes, and sores that don’t heal.

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a chronic disease in which plaque builds up in the arteries to the legs. This buildup typically occurs gradually. If allowed to progress, blood flow in that artery can become limited or blocked all together. PAD is relatively common, affecting more than 10 million people in the US. It is more common in people who are 65 or older, but can occur at nearly any age. Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or triglycerides, diabetes, kidney failure and obesity increase your risk for PAD.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a build-up of plaque in the arteries of the body away from the heart. As PAD advances, people will typically experience symptoms, such as pain, in their lower extremities when they're trying to walk, exercise or work. If you notice these symptoms and have other risk factors like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or tobacco use, you should see your doctor.

A large percentage of people with PAD also have vascular disease involving other parts of their bodies, such as coronary disease in their heart or carotid occlusive disease in their neck, which could certainly lead to high risk for heart attacks and strokes. Simple ultrasound and angiogram tests can look at the legs for places where the arteries are narrowed, allowing your doctor to prescribe treatment.

Your arteries carry blood rich in oxygen and nutrients from your heart to the rest of your body. When the arteries in your legs become blocked, your legs do not receive enough blood or oxygen, and you may have a condition called peripheral artery disease (PAD).

PAD can cause discomfort or pain when you walk. The pain can occur in your hips, buttocks, thighs, knees, shins, or upper feet. You are more likely to develop PAD as you age. One in 3 people age 70 or older has PAD. Smoking or having diabetes increases your chances of developing the disease sooner.

Your arteries are normally smooth and unobstructed on the inside but, as you age, they can become blocked through a process called atherosclerosis, which means hardening of the arteries. As you age, plaque can build up in the walls of your arteries. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, calcium, and fibrous tissue. As more plaque builds up, your arteries narrow and stiffen. Eventually, enough plaque builds up to reduce blood flow to your leg arteries. When this happens, your leg does not receive the oxygen it needs.

You may not feel any symptoms from peripheral artery disease at first. The most common early symptom is intermittent claudication (IC). IC is discomfort or pain in your legs that happens when you walk and goes away when you rest. You may not always feel pain; instead you may feel a tightness, heaviness, cramping, or weakness in your leg with activity. IC often occurs more quickly if you walk uphill or up a flight of stairs. Over time, you may begin to feel IC at shorter walking distances. Only about 50 percent of the people with leg artery disease have blockages severe enough to experience IC.

In severe peripheral artery disease, you may develop painful sores on your toes or feet. If the circulation in your leg does not improve, these ulcers can start as dry, gray, or black sores, and eventually become dead tissue (called gangrene).

You may have heard the term PAD and wondered what it refers to. PAD is a commonly used acronym for peripheral artery disease, a serious but treatable condition that affects the blood vessels. PAD is like coronary artery disease only PAD mostly affects the blood vessels of the legs, feet, head and neck. These blood vessels receive oxygenated blood from the blood vessels that doctors call “the peripheral arteries.”

In PAD, there is a progressive narrowing of blood vessels as fatty deposits called plaques build up inside the walls of your arteries and threaten your health. If untreated, PAD can have very serious consequences, including gangrene, which can require amputation of the toes, foot or even lower leg. PAD also can be a signal that the arteries are narrowing not just in the legs and feet but also in the heart and brain, possibly leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Rick Sayegh
Dr. Rick Sayegh on behalf of MDLIVE

Patients with compromise of blood flow to the extremities as a consequence of peripheral arterial disease may present with typical ischemic pain of one or more muscle groups, atypical pain, or no symptoms. Intermittent claudication (derived from the Latin word for limp) is defined as a reproducible discomfort of a defined group of muscles that is induced by exercise and relieved with rest. This disorder results from an imbalance between supply and demand of blood flow that fails to satisfy ongoing metabolic requirements.

Dr. Manesh R. Patel, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

I tell patients that peripheral arterial disease is the same sort of disease as heart disease. Heart disease is obstructions in arteries to your heart because of atherosclerosis. These obstructions can also be in arteries to your neck, to your kidney, to your legs. So PAD is disease in the arteries that aren't the heart arteries. Patients with PAD have a 5 to 8 times the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) can cause chronic symptoms such as pain or cramping in the calves or buttocks with effort, a condition doctors call intermittent claudication. These symptoms can impair lifestyle, and PAD usually coexists with atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, in the heart and the vessels that supply the brain, thus serving as a marker for heart attack and stroke risk.

Peripheral arterial disease, also called PAD, occurs when blood vessels in the legs are narrowed or blocked by fatty deposits and blood flow to your feet and legs decreases. If you have PAD, you have an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. An estimated 1 out of every 3 people with diabetes over the age of 50 have this condition. However, many of those with warning signs don't realize that they have PAD and therefore don't get treatment.

Dr. Mark B. Lampert, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Peripheral arterial disease is the blockage in the arteries that feed the legs. Learn more from Dr. Mark Lampert on behalf of NorthShore University HealthSystem about peripheral arterial disease and how it is treated.

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is caused by atherosclerosis, which is a hardening or plaque buildup in the arteries. It commonly occurs in the arteries that supply blood to the lower extremities. That can cause either symptoms of leg heaviness, tiredness, aching or cramping when you are walking. It can limit your walking ability and distance. In severe cases, it can cause extreme limitation in blood flow to the lower extremities, putting patients at risk for amputation.

Boston Women's Health Book Collective
Administration Specialist

Problems in arteries other than those supplying the heart and brain are known as peripheral arterial disease. A blockage in the arteries supplying the legs can cause buttock, thigh, or calf pain, changes in skin color, sores or ulcers, and difficulty in walking. Total loss of circulation to the legs and feet can cause gangrene and loss of a limb.

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Peripheral artery disease (PAD)—often called peripheral vascular disease (PVD)—is a condition in which the arteries that carry blood to the legs or arms become narrowed or blocked. PAD affects about 1 in 20 people over the age of 50, or 10 million people in the United States. As with coronary artery disease, the most common cause of PAD is atherosclerosis (buildup of fatty plaque in the walls of the blood vessels). In some cases, PAD may be caused by blood clots that lodge in the arteries and restrict blood flow.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a disease in which plaque builds up in the arteries that carry blood to the head, organs, and limbs. One in 20 Americans over the age of 50 has PAD, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a circulation disorder that causes narrowing, blockage or spasms of blood vessels to parts of the body other than the brain and heart.

Dr. David W. Drucker, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a disease where you get cholesterol blockages inside the arteries that feed the muscles or the organs in your body. Whereas heart artery disease is cholesterol blockage in the heart circulation, peripheral artery disease is a broad term that healthcare providers use for cholesterol blockages in the arteries outside of the heart. There could be blockages in the neck, arm or the leg arteries, which is very common.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) occurs when 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 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.

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

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. It may be hard for your body to fight the infection.

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

This answer from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has been reviewed and/or edited by Dr. William D. Knopf.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is hardening of the arteries that supply blood to the arms and legs. PAD usually results from atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque and narrowing of the arteries. With this condition, blood flow and oxygen to the arm and leg muscles are low or even fully blocked. Signs and symptoms include leg pain, numbness and swelling in the ankles and feet.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.