More than 8 million American adults age 40 and older have peripheral artery disease, or PAD. And it’s only becoming more pervasive due to common lifestyle risk factors.

Peripheral artery disease is very similar to coronary artery disease. Coronary artery disease occurs when the coronary arteries (the arteries inside the chest) become damaged or diseased. PAD, on the other hand, occurs when the peripheral arteries (the arteries outside the chest or abdomen) are damaged.

Both conditions are caused by build-up of fatty plaque in the arteries, which can cause the blood vessels to become narrowed and stiff (atherosclerosis), as well as limiting blood flow to the limbs, kidneys and other vital organs (ischemia). This narrowing of the blood vessels is the same process that can cause heart attacks from blockages in the heart and strokes from blockages in the carotid arteries leading to the brain. 

Who’s at Risk of Developing PAD?

While anyone can develop PAD, some factors put you at a greater risk. We mentioned above that Americans’ lifestyle habits have contributed to an increase in PAD cases. Of the factors listed above, only your age is beyond your control. You can lower your risk by quitting smoking, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and working with your doctor to manage any health conditions you have.

Risk factors include:

  • Being age 60 or older
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Family history of heart disease/heart attack

What Are the Symptoms of PAD?

Unfortunately, individuals with PAD often don’t experience symptoms, especially early on in the disease. The first sign of PAD is typically pain or weakness in the legs or feet when walking or standing. This discomfort, called claudication, may affect the buttocks, hip, thigh or calf.

As the disease progresses and blood flow becomes more restricted, you may experience:

  • Lack of growth of toenails and leg hair
  • Leg weakness or numbness
  • One foot feeling colder than the other
  • Pain in the leg or foot while at rest or at night
  • Pain or heaviness in the legs when walking or climbing stairs that goes away after rest
  • Paleness or discoloration in the leg or foot
  • “Pins and needles” sensation in the leg or foot
  • Slow-healing or non-healing wounds on the toes, feet, or legs

How is PAD Diagnosed?

If your doctor believes you’re experiencing peripheral artery disease, he or she will likely perform an ultrasound of the arteries in the legs, as well as an ankle brachial index (ABI). An ABI is a non-invasive test allowing the physician to visualize blood flow in the arteries of the legs, as well as measuring blood pressure in the ankles for comparison to blood pressure in the arms before and after exercise.

Depending on the result of the ABI and your symptoms, your doctor may also order imaging tests to confirm a diagnosis, such as an ultrasound or CT scan. Your doctor may recommend that you start seeing a vascular surgeon at this time, as they are the experts that specialize in the management and treatment of all diseases affecting the vascular system.

How is PAD Treated?

If you’re diagnosed with PAD, your surgeon will work to develop a treatment plan that’s customized based on the severity of disease and your overall health. Treatment is designed to reduce PAD-related symptoms, lower your risk of serious health issues such as stroke, improve your mobility and enhance your quality of life.

As a first-line treatment, your doctor will likely recommend you make lifestyle changes. If you smoke, it’s important to quit. Smoking not only increases your risk of developing PAD, it also makes symptoms worse.

Beyond basic lifestyle changes, including eating a heart-healthy diet and effectively managing stress, your doctor may also suggest you work through either a supervised or at-home exercise program specifically designed to relieve inflammation and PAD symptoms.

Treating PAD through minimally-invasive or endovascular procedures is an innovative care option offered by our highly-trained vascular surgeons and this may include:

  • Angioplasty
  • Atherectomy
  • Stenting
  • A combination of approaches if needed

Individuals with severely compromised blood flow may need rapid treatment to save a limb. The goal of this therapy is first to prevent loss of limb and then to improve your level of activity so you can enjoy a greater quality of life.

Why Choose Georgia Heart Institute?

As the region’s most forward-thinking heart and vascular program, Georgia Heart Institute offers a high degree of expertise through fellowship-trained surgeons that perform thousands of surgeries each year, enriched with advanced technology to ensure the best outcomes for our patients. By intervening early, the fellowship-trained surgeons at Georgia Heart Institute can help reduce the risk of complications from PAD and other dangerous vascular diseases.

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