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What is Peripheral Artery Disease of the Legs?

Maybe you walk less than you used to because of muscle aches in your legs. Or you've had a sore on your foot that seemed to take forever to heal. Perhaps you've also heard you have "poor circulation."

These are the sneaky symptoms of peripheral artery disease. It narrows the arteries in the legs, limiting blood flow to your muscles.

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It can take you by surprise, causing no symptoms at all or symptoms you may think are something else. And even mild cases can be a signal that you might have problems with other arteries, too.

Causes

It usually happens because your arteries harden and narrow. (That's called atherosclerosis). Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and not being active are the main causes.

If you have diabetes, you're more likely to get a worse case of peripheral artery disease that improves less with treatment.

Symptoms

When atherosclerosis narrows the long arteries of the legs, your leg muscles don't get enough blood flow. As a result, you may feel muscle pain. It usually comes on with exercise and stops when you rest.

It can affect different muscle groups, including:

  • Calf (most common)
  • Buttock and hip
  • Thigh
  • Foot (less common)

Some people feel burning or numbness. Others have severe blockages with no pain at all, usually because the body grows blood vessels that go around the blockages.

Other signs and symptoms of peripheral artery disease include:

  • Wounds that heal poorly
  • Legs are cooler than the arms
  • Shiny skin over the legs
  • Loss of hair on the legs
  • Fainter pulse in the feet

Diagnosis

The tests you'll take to see if you have peripheral artery disease are simple and painless.

Doctors usually start by checking your "ankle-brachial index," which compares your blood pressure at your ankle and upper arm. Those measurements should be about the same. If your blood pressure in your ankle is a lot lower, you may have peripheral artery disease.

If your case is severe, you may take a type of X-ray called an angiogram to see exactly where the blockage is. Your doctor will inject a dye into a blood vessel to help show what's going on.

Treatment

You can do a lot to stop peripheral artery disease in its tracks, such as:

The drug cilostazol eases symptoms in many people. Pentoxifylline is another that can improve blood flow in people with poor circulation. Doctors may also prescribe aspirin or other anticlotting drugs.

For severe peripheral artery disease, your doctor may recommend surgery or less invasive procedures to bypass a blocked artery and restore blood flow.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on October 03, 2014

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