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Heart Disease Health Center

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Peripheral Vascular Disease

Peripheral Vascular Disease Overview

Peripheral vascular disease, also called PVD, refers to any disease or disorder of the circulatory system outside of the brain and heart. The term can include any disorder that affects any blood vessels. It is, though, often used as a synonym for peripheral artery disease.

PVD is the most common disease of the arteries. The build-up of fatty material inside the vessels, a condition called atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, is what causes it. The build up is a gradual process. Over time, the artery becomes blocked, narrowed, or weakened.

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When a blockage occurs in the arteries of the heart, it's called coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease. Most often, atherosclerosis is thought of in terms of its affect on arteries of the heart and of the brain. But athersclerosis can affect any other blood vessel throughout the body. 

Blood vessels in the legs are the ones most often affected. Other arteries frequently affected include those that supply blood to the kidneys and those in the arms. When an artery is blocked or narrowed, the part of the body it supplies doesn't get enough oxygen. The condition is called ischemia. Ischemia can cause a variety of symptoms, depending on the organ or system that's affected. 

Symptoms range from pain, cold feet, and bluish discoloration to stroke or gangrene. If the condition is not reversed, the affected body part is injured and eventually starts to die. It's important to find narrowed arteries before damage occurs. 

Who Gets PVD

About 8 million people in the United States have PVD. It occurs mostly in people older than 60, affecting about 12% to 20% of people in that age group. It's also common among people with diabetes. Men are slightly more likely than women to have PVD. The disease is more common in smokers. The combination of diabetes and smoking almost always results in more severe disease.

PVD is the leading cause of disability among people older than 60 as well as those with diabetes. Up to 40% of the people with PVD don't have symptoms. Of those who do, many don't tell their health care providers. 

People often think PVD is a normal part of aging and that nothing can be done about it. Others think the only solution is surgery. But surgery is only one of several effective treatments available. Treating PVD medically is the best way to prevent it from getting worse and protect against complications. This is especially true for people who have high blood pressure (hypertension) or diabetes, those with high fats or lipids in their blood, and those who smoke.

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