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Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a common condition, in which a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries restricts blood supply to leg muscles. It's also known as peripheral vascular disease (PVD).
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Many people with PAD have no symptoms. However, some develop a painful ache in their legs when they walk, which usually disappears after a few minutes' rest. The medical term for this is "intermittent claudication".
The pain can range from mild to severe, and usually goes away after a few minutes when you rest your legs.
Both legs are often affected at the same time, although the pain may be worse in one leg.
Other symptoms of PAD can include:
The symptoms of PAD often develop slowly, over time. If your symptoms develop quickly, or get suddenly worse, it could be a sign of a serious problem requiring immediate treatment.
You should see your GP if you experience recurring leg pain when exercising.
Many people mistakenly think this is just part of growing older, but there's no reason why an otherwise healthy person should experience leg pain.
PAD is usually diagnosed through a physical examination by your GP, and by comparing the blood pressure in your arm and your ankle.
A difference between the two may indicate PAD and is called the ankle brachial pressure index (ABPI).
Read about diagnosing PAD.
PAD is a form of cardiovascular disease (CVD), meaning it affects the blood vessels.
It's usually caused by a build-up of fatty deposits in the walls of the leg arteries. The fatty deposits, called atheroma, are made up of cholesterol and other waste substances.
The build-up of atheroma on the walls of the arteries makes the arteries narrower and restricts blood flow to the legs. This process is called atherosclerosis.
There are certain things that can increase your chances of developing PAD and other forms of CVD, including:
Your risk of developing PAD also increases as you get older, and men tend to develop the condition more often than women.
PAD is largely treated through lifestyle changes and medication.
Exercising regularly and stopping smoking, if you smoke, are the main lifestyle changes that can ease the symptoms of PAD and reduce the chances of the condition getting worse. It's also important to:
With treatment, most people's symptoms remain relatively stable and some people may experience an improvement in their pain.
If treatment is unsuccessful or you can't make appropriate lifestyle changes, there's a risk of potentially serious complications.
Read about treating PAD.
PAD isn't immediately life-threatening, but the process of atherosclerosis that causes it can lead to serious and potentially fatal problems.
The blockages in the arteries in the legs can also affect other areas of your body, such as the arteries supplying the heart and brain.
This means that having PAD makes you more likely to develop another form of cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as:
If the blood flow to the legs becomes severely restricted, critical limb ischaemia (CLI) can develop. CLI is an extremely serious complication that can be challenging to treat.
Symptoms of CLI include:
If your GP suspects peripheral arterial disease (PAD), they'll first carry out a physical examination of your legs.
PAD can cause various symptoms – some of which your GP will be able spot, but you may not – such as:
Your GP may also ask about your symptoms and your personal and family medical histories.
The ankle brachial pressure index (ABPI) test is widely used to diagnose PAD, as well as assess how well you're responding to treatment.
While you rest on your back, your GP or practice nurse will measure the blood pressure in your upper arms and your ankles. These measurements are taken with a Doppler probe, which uses sound waves to determine the blood flow in your arteries.
They then divide the second result (from your ankle) by the first result (from your arm).
If your circulation is healthy, the blood pressure in both parts of your body should be exactly or almost the same, and the result of your ABPI would be one.
However, if you have PAD, the blood pressure in your ankle will be lower because of a reduction in blood supply, so the results of the ABPI would be less than one.
In some cases, ABPI may be carried out after getting you to run on a treadmill or cycle on an exercise bike. This is a good way to see the effect of physical activity on your circulation, although it usually needs to be done in hospital, as most GP surgeries don't have the facilities to perform this test.
In most cases, your GP will be able to confirm a diagnosis of PAD by doing a physical examination, asking about your symptoms and checking your ABPI score.
Further testing is usually only required if:
Additional hospital-based tests that can be used include:
In some cases, the contrast agent may be injected directly into the arteries of your leg, and X-rays may be used to produce the images.
There's no cure for peripheral arterial disease (PAD), but lifestyle changes and medication can help reduce the symptoms.
These treatments can also help reduce your risk of developing other types of cardiovascular disease (CVD), such as:
This is very important, because having PAD is a sign that your blood vessels are unhealthy. This could mean you're more likely to develop one of these potentially more serious problems.
Surgery may be used in severe cases or when initial treatment hasn't effectively reduced your symptoms.
The two most important lifestyle changes that you can make if you're diagnosed with PAD are exercising more regularly and stopping smoking, if you smoke.
Evidence suggests that regular exercise helps to reduce the severity and frequency of PAD symptoms, while also reducing the risk of developing another CVD.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends supervised exercise as one of the first steps for managing PAD. This may involve group exercise sessions with other people with CVD, led by a trainer.
The exercise programme usually involves two hours of supervised exercise a week for three months. Ideally, over time, you should be aiming to exercise daily for the rest of your life, as the benefits of exercise are quickly lost if it's not frequent and regular.
One of the best exercises you can do is walking. It's normally recommended that you walk as far and as long as you can before the symptoms of pain become intolerable. Once this happens, rest until the pain goes, and begin walking again until the pain returns.
Keep using this "stop-start" method until you've spent at least 30 minutes walking in total. This should ideally be repeated several times a week.
You'll probably find the exercise course challenging, as the frequent episodes of pain can be upsetting and off-putting. However, if you persevere, you should gradually notice a marked improvement in your symptoms, and you'll begin to go longer periods without experiencing pain.
Stopping smoking will reduce your risk of PAD getting worse and another serious CVD developing.
Research has found that people who continue to smoke after receiving their diagnosis are much more likely to have a heart attack and die from a complication of heart disease than people who quit after receiving their diagnosis.
Read more about stopping smoking.
In addition to exercising and stopping smoking, there are a number of other lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of developing other forms of CVD.
Having poorly-controlled diabetes can also make your PAD symptoms worse and raise your chances of developing other forms of CVD.
It's important to manage your diabetes properly, which may involve lifestyle changes – such as reducing the amount of sugar and fat in your diet and taking medications to lower your blood sugar level.
Different medications can be used to treat the underlying causes of PAD, while also reducing your risk of developing another CVD.
Some people may only need to take one or two of the medications discussed below, while others may need all of them.
If blood tests show that your levels of LDL cholesterol ("bad cholesterol") are high, you'll be prescribed a type of medication called a statin.
Statins work by helping to reduce the production of LDL cholesterol by your liver.
Many people who take statins experience no or very few side effects, although others experience some troublesome – but usually minor – side effects, such as:
Antihypertensives are a group of medications used to treat high blood pressure (hypertension).
It's likely that you'll be prescribed an antihypertensive drug if:
Read more about diagnosing high blood pressure.
A widely used type of antihypertensive is an angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitor, which block the actions of some hormones that help regulate blood pressure. They help to reduce the amount of water in your blood and widen your arteries, both of which decrease your blood pressure.
Side effects of ACE inhibitors include:
Most of these side effects pass in a few days, although some people find they have a dry cough a bit longer.
If your side effects become particularly troublesome, a medication that works in a similar way to ACE inhibitors, known as an angiotensin-2 receptor antagonist, may be recommended.
Read more about treating high blood pressure.
One of the biggest potential dangers if you have atherosclerosis is a piece of fatty deposit (plaque) breaking off from your artery wall. This can cause a blood clot to develop at the site of the broken plaque.
If a blood clot develops inside an artery that supplies the heart with blood (a coronary artery), it can trigger a heart attack. Similarly, if a blood clot develops inside any of the blood vessels going to the brain, it can trigger a stroke.
If you have PAD, you'll probably be prescribed an antiplatelet medication to reduce your risk of blood clots. This medication reduces the ability of platelets (tiny blood cells) to stick together, so if a plaque does break apart, you have a lower chance of a blood clot developing.
Common side effects of low-dose aspirin include indigestion and an increased risk of bleeding.
Common side effects of clopidogrel can include:
NICE recommends naftidrofuryl oxalate for the treatment of leg pain triggered by exercise (intermittent claudication) in people with PAD.
This medication may improve blood flow in the body, and is very occasionally used if you prefer not to have surgery or your supervised exercise programme hasn't led to a satisfactory improvement in your condition.
Side effects of naftidrofuryl oxalate can include:
You'll normally be advised to take naftidrofuryl oxalate for around three to six months, to see if it improves your symptoms. If the treatment isn't effective after this time, it will be stopped.
In a few cases, a procedure to restore the flow of blood through the arteries in your legs may be recommended. This is known as revascularisation.
Revascularisation may be recommended if your leg pain is so severe it prevents you from carrying out everyday activities, or if your symptoms have failed to respond to the treatments mentioned above.
There are two main types of revascularisation treatment for PAD:
You may not always be able to choose between having an angioplasty or a bypass graft, but if you are, it's important to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each technique.
An angioplasty is less invasive than a bypass – it doesn't involve making major cuts (incisions) in your body – and is usually performed under local anaesthetic as a day procedure. This means you'll be able to go home the same day you have the operation, and you may recover more quickly.
For this reason, angioplasty is generally preferred to bypass surgery, unless angioplasty isn't suitable or has failed previously.
However, the results of a bypass are generally considered to be longer-lasting than those of an angioplasty, and the procedure may need to be repeated less often than an angioplasty.
Both angioplasty and bypass surgery carry a small risk of serious complications, such as a heart attack, stroke and even death. While there are few studies comparing the two techniques for PAD, there's some evidence to suggest that the risk of serious complications is similar in both bypass surgery and angioplasty.
Before recommending treatment, a team of specialist surgeons, doctors and nurses will discuss options with you – including the potential risks and benefits.