Causes and Risk Factors

Also called peripheral vascular disease (PVD), this serious circulation problem can result from atherosclerosis, inflammatory processes leading to stenosis, an embolism, or thrombus formation. Often PVD is a term used to refer to atherosclerotic blockages found in the lower extremity. The prevalence of peripheral vascular disease in the general population is 12–14%, affecting up to 20% of those over 701; 70%–80% of affected individuals are asymptomatic; only a minority ever require revascularization or amputation. Peripheral vascular disease affects 1 in 3 diabetics over the age of 50.

Like atherosclerosis, PAD occurs when the arteries become narrowed by a buildup of plaque — including cholesterol, fatty deposits, calcium, and other substances in the blood. Blocked arteries can prevent oxygen-rich blood from reaching the muscles when the muscles need it most. This lack of oxygen causes pain. PAD can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. But the good news is that PAD can be easy to diagnose and is treatable.

PAD is generally also affected by the following risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances of developing an artery blockage.

  • Eating high-fat foods
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Excess weight

There are also some risk factors that cannot be avoided, such as menopause, aging, or having a family history of heart disease. Additionally, men are also at higher risk of PAD than women.

People with PAD can have a six- to seven-times higher risk of heart attack and stroke. About one third of patients with PAD who have a heart attack or stroke die from it. Also, if PAD is not treated, the symptoms can get worse. It may become very difficult and painful to get around. Severe PAD may even cause serious infections that can result in the loss of a limb. If you think you may be at risk, ask your doctor whether you should be screened.

If you have symptoms or think you may be at risk, get screened for PAD. You can get screened at your doctor's office. The tests for PAD can be quick and painless — as simple as a blood pressure measurement.