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Peripheral Artery Disease

(PAD; Peripheral Vascular Disease; PVD; Arteriosclerosis Obliterans)

Definition  ^

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a condition that leads to a decrease of blood flow to the arms and legs.

Causes  ^

PAD is most often caused by a narrowing of blood vessels that supply blood to the arms and legs. The narrowing is usually caused by a buildup of plaque called atherosclerosis. The build up occurs over long periods of time and is increased with:

Other conditions that can slow blood flow include blood clots and inflammation of the blood vessels. Certain conditions like congenital heart disease can also decrease the amount of oxygen rich blood that reaches the arms and legs.


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Risk Factors  ^

PAD is more common in men and in people over 50 years of age. Other factors that increase your chance of developing PAD include:

  • Family history of PAD
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure or family history of high blood pressure
  • Stroke or family history of stroke
  • High cholesterol or family history of high cholesterol
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Metabolic syndrome

Symptoms  ^

Symptoms of PAD will depend on the area that is most affected. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain, fatigue, aching, tightness, weakness, cramping or tingling in the leg(s) brought on by exercise that goes away when resting
  • Numbness and pain of the legs or feet at rest
  • Cold hands, legs, or feet
  • Loss of hair on the legs and/or feet
  • Paleness or blueness of the legs
  • Weak or absent pulse in the leg
  • Sores, ulcer, or infection of the feet and legs that heal slowly
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Swelling in lower extremities
  • Muscle atrophy—loss of muscle

Diagnosis  ^

You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

During the exam, your doctor may do the following:

  • Check the strength of the pulse in the legs
  • Use a stethescope to listen for abnormal sounds in leg arteries or the abdomen
  • Check blood pressure in the leg

If the doctor suspects a change in blood flow, other tests may be done to confirm change or look for causes. Images of blood vessels can be done with:

Your heart activity may need to be tested. This can be done with an electrocardiogram (EKG).

Treatment  ^

Early treatment can slow or stop the disease. Treatment options include the following:

Lifestyle Changes

Certain lifestyle changes can improve the health of your heart and blood vessels. Steps that may help you slow or even reverse PAD include:


Medications that may help improve blood flow include:

  • Blood thinners to reduce blood clots
  • Statins to lower cholesterol
  • Vasodilators to widen arteries

Pain medication may also be needed to help manage discomfort.

Invasive Procedures

If blood flow is very poor, a procedure may be needed to quickly increase blood flow. Options include:

  • Balloon angioplasty —a balloon is passed into the artery to flatten the plaque and improve blood flow
  • Stent implant—a wire mesh tube is placed in the artery to help keep it open
  • Laser treatment
  • Atherectomy—a tube called a catheter is used to remove plaque inside a blood vessel


Surgery may be needed to open arteries that are severely blocked. Options include:

  • Endarterectomy—the lining of the artery is removed, along with plaque build up
  • Bypass surgery—a vein from another part of the body or a graft is used to send blood flow around the blockage

Prevention  ^

A heart healthy lifestyle can decrease the risk of PAD. General steps include:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Healthy diet
  • Stop or don't start smoking
  • Work with your medical team to manage any related conditions

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians

Vascular Cures


Canadian Society for Vascular Surgery

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada


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Prevention and treatment of peripheral artery disease (PAD). American Heart Association website. Available at: Updated Ocotber 2016. Accessed January 16, 2018.

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Peripheral arterial disease. Am Fam Physician. 2004 Feb 1;69(3):533. Available at: Accessed March 2, 2016.

Peripheral arterial disease and claudication. American Academy of Family Physicians Family Doctor website. Available at: Updated April 2014. Accessed March 2, 2016.

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) of lower extremities. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated September 8, 2017. Accessed January 16, 2018.

Regensteiner JG, Stewart KJ. Established and evolving medical therapies for claudication in patients with peripheral arterial disease. Nat Clin Pract Cardiovasc Med. 2006;3: 604-610.

11/18/2011 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Rooke TW, Hirsch AT, Misra S, et al. 2011 ACCF/AHA focused update of the guideline for the management of patients with peripheral artery disease (updating the 2005 guideline): a report of the American College of Cardiology Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation. 2011;124(18):2020-2045.

Last reviewed March 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael J. Fucci, DO, FACC  Last Updated: 1/16/2018

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