Vascular Disease



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


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:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking

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 may increase your chances of PAD:

  • 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 artery disease (CAD)
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • HIV infection



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


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:

  • Doppler ultrasound
  • Angiography
  • MRI scan

Your heart activity may need to be tested. This can be done with an ECG .



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:

  • Carefully manage related medical conditions such as:
    • High blood pressure
    • High cholesterol
    • Diabetes
  • Increase physical activity —such as a walking program
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat a heart healthy diet —low in saturated and trans fats and high in vegetables an fruits


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


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

  • Regular physical activity
  • Eating a healthful diet
  • Quitting or not starting smoking
  • Working with your medical team to manage any related conditions

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Edits to original content made by Denver Health.

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


American Heart Association 

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians 


Canadian Society for Vascular Surgery 

Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada 


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