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Peripheral artery disease

Overview of peripheral artery disease

Peripheral artery disease (PAD) refers to poor circulation in your limbs (arms or legs). PAD is usually a result of narrowed arteries that become blocked by a buildup of plaque (fatty deposits).

PAD restricts blood from getting to your extremities. It can cause discoloration of your feet or legs, swelling in your legs, numbness, tingling, pain, sores or cuts that don’t heal, and difficulty walking.

If left untreated, restricted blood flow from PAD can be fatal. It is also often a warning sign for other conditions since having blocked arteries in your legs means that you most likely have blocked arteries elsewhere in your body. Having PAD means that you may be at higher risk for amputation, stroke, and heart attack.

If you experience any symptoms of PAD, Dignity Health offers an extensive network of expert cardiologists to help you treat and manage them.


Since PAD reduces blood flow to your legs and feet, you often can see the signs, as the skin on your lower legs may look bluish from a lack of oxygen. You also may experience the following symptoms:

  • Pain, burning, or fatigue in your leg muscles
  • Pain that gets worse when you put your legs up
  • Numbness in your legs and feet while resting
  • Leg cramps at night
  • Severe pain in your toes
  • Leg sores that appear with no known cause and do not heal promptly


Peripheral artery disease results from a narrowing of the vessels that carry blood to your arms and legs. Many conditions can cause PAD, but the most common cause is atherosclerosis (or a buildup of plaque inside artery walls).

High cholesterol, aging, diabetes, and smoking can also lead to or worsen PAD.


PAD can be either occlusive or functional. Some types of PAD are mostly cosmetic, such as varicose veins. Others are potentially life-threatening and can increase your chance of stroke or limb loss.

Occlusive PAD stems from blocked vessels and usually results from conditions such as:

  • Atherosclerosis from arteries thickening over time
  • Lymphedema, excess buildup of lymph fluid
  • Deep vein thrombosis, blood clots that form in one of the veins in your leg muscles
  • Carotid artery stenosis, in which the carotid arteries become narrowed, restricting blood flow

Functional PAD occurs when the blood vessels are not blocked, but they malfunction by spasming. Functional PAD is often made worse by stress, smoking, or cold, and can be triggered by these conditions:

  • Varicose veins, in which veins become enlarged, twisted, and visible under the skin.
  • Raynaud’s disease, a disorder that clamps down circulation in the hands and feet and is often made worse by exposure to cold.
  • CVI or chronic venous insufficiency, a condition where the veins do not work correctly.

Risk factors

The following are common risk factors associated with PAD:

  • Gender: men are more likely to develop PAD
  • Age: PAD affects only 5 percent of adults in the United States, but over 20 percent of adults over 60
  • Race: those of African descent are at higher risk
  • History of diabetes
  • History of circulation disorders
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • History of smoking
  • History of stroke
  • History of heart disease or heart attacks
  • Family history of PAD
  • History of kidney disease

If one or more of the above describes you, you may be at higher risk for PAD.


Changing your lifestyle can also help prevent complications and reduce your risk of developing PAD:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Eat a healthy diet, as recommended by your doctor.
  • Keep your blood sugar levels under control, especially if you have diabetes.
  • Take any medication for high blood pressure, if prescribed.
  • Exercise according to your doctor’s instructions.
The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.