What Is Peripheral Artery Disease?
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) is the preferred term to describe a disease in which plaque builds up in the blood vessels. These blood vessels are responsible for carrying blood to your head, organs, and limbs. Arterial plaque has been linked to heart disease. The buildup of fatty deposits in the heart can lead to Coronary Artery Disease and atherosclerosis. Ultimately, both can lead to signs and symptoms of a heart attack.
The plaque that builds up in your veins is made up of several components. Arterial plaque is composed of lipids, cholesterol, calcium, fibrous tissue, and other substances found in the blood. The buildup of plaque diminishes your body’s ability to pump blood effectively. Over time, the result is a severe limitation of oxygen-rich blood to the organs, limbs, and tissues.
Peripheral Artery Disease typically affects the blood vessels in the legs and feet, but people with PAD may also experience arterial buildup in the blood vessels leading to the head, arms, kidneys, and stomach. We will focus on the most common symptoms of PAD, including restricted blood flow to the legs and feet and the different ways that PAD (also called Peripheral Vascular Disease) affects physical activity, heart health, and general health; risk factors for the condition; and treatment options.
Peripheral Artery Disease Symptoms
If you experience leg pain while walking or climbing stairs, speak to your doctor. Many people regard leg pain as a necessary evil in the process of aging, but leg pain is a common indicator of PAD. Taking your medical history and family history into account, your doctor can discuss treatment options and determine whether or not you are a prime candidate for PAD evaluation.
In addition to leg pain, people with PAD may experience numbness or tingling in the limbs. Unlike neuropathy, this condition is not typically characterized by shooting pain caused by nerve damage. Instead, people may notice a lack of sensation or a feeling as though their leg or foot has fallen asleep, in addition to pangs of localized pain or discomfort.
Color changes in the legs have also been linked to PAD. This is largely due to the lack of circulation. Legs affected by PAD may be shiny, red, purple, or blue-tinged and may experience a decrease in adequate healing. The same legs that exhibit changes in color may also possess unhealed sores or persistent infections and may have a demonstrable difference in temperature compared to the rest of the body, or even the other leg or foot.
Peripheral Artery Disease Risk Factors
The primary risk factor associated with PAD is smoking. If you currently smoke or have a history of smoking, your PAD risk increases four-fold. Discussing a smoking cessation program with your doctor can help limit one significant risk factor for PAD and improve existing symptoms.
Age is another common risk factor for PAD, as most people with the disease do not experience symptoms until the age of 50 or older. If you are of an advanced age, and you begin experiencing leg pain, numbness, or discomfort, speak to your doctor about the possible causes of your discomfort and pain and what measures may be taken to reduce any lingering pain and discomfort.
Race has also been implicated as a potential risk factor for PAD development. African Americans are considered at greater risk for PAD than other races. The precise reason for this increased risk remains unknown. Nevertheless, several studies were evaluated and each of these studies found elevated risks in certain people groups.
The NIH encourages more rigorous evaluations for people with greater risk factors. Individuals who smoke, are of advanced age, or are of African American descent may need to visit their doctor for evaluations far more often than people who do not smoke or are not of advanced age or African American descent.
Expected Complications of PAD
Impeded blood flow to the legs and feet can result in pain and numbness. Without being able to feel pain, your risk of infection skyrockets, as does your risk of developing sores or ulcers in these areas. Untreated, pain and numbness can increase, thereby increasing the risk of securing an injury that is slow (or even impossible) to heal. With enough time, injuries such as these can lead to permanent loss of limbs and result in very serious complications.
Healing relies heavily on blood flow. Immune responses and inflammation are carried out entirely by the “task forces” found in the blood. Impaired circulation naturally results in impaired healing. When blood flow is substantially impeded, gangrene (tissue death) can result, which may lead to amputation of the affected limb. While PAD may not initially seem to be a substantial threat to human health, it can wreak havoc on the limbs of people afflicted by it.
In the absence of these more serious complications, there are other negative impacts to consider. Ongoing PAD significantly impairs your quality of life. Walking, running, and moving around can all become too painful or too difficult to tolerate. You can also experience difficulty sleeping that is only relieved temporarily. Reducing risks of PAD effectively reduces the negative effects of the condition, as well.
Peripheral Artery Disease Treatment
Treatments for PAD will vary as severity varies, but once the condition has been diagnosed, the American Heart Association recommends implementing gentle exercise programs, smoking cessation programs (when applicable), diet changes, medication changes, and successful treatment of any contributing conditions, such as diabetes.