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Peripheral Vascular Disease

Peripheral Vascular Disease Overview

The circulatory system consists of 2 types of blood vessels: arteries and veins. These are tubular structures that carry the blood throughout the body. 

  • Arteries carry oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood from the heart to the organs and cells.
  • Veins carry oxygen-depleted blood and wastes through the kidneys, liver, and lungs, where wastes are filtered out and removed from the body. The venous blood is then again filled with oxygen in the lungs and returned back to the heart.
  • The 2 are interconnected by small weblike vessels called capillaries.

Peripheral vascular disease refers to any disease or disorder of the circulatory system outside of the brain and heart. 

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  • Although the term peripheral vascular disease can include any disorder that affects any of the blood vessels, it often is used as a synonym for peripheral artery disease.
  • Peripheral vascular disease is the most common disease of the arteries.
  • It is caused by build-up of fatty material within the vessels, called atherosclerosis.
  • Another name for this condition is arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
  • This is gradual process in which the artery gradually becomes blocked, narrowed, or weakened.
  • When this condition affects the arteries of the heart, it is called coronary heart disease (coronary artery disease).

Atherosclerosis is known for affecting the arteries of the heart (coronary arteries) and the brain (carotid arteries). Of the peripheral arteries, those of the legs are most often affected. Other arteries frequently affected by atherosclerosis include those supplying blood to the kidneys or arms.

  • When an artery is blocked or narrowed, the part of the body supplied by that artery does not get enough blood/oxygen. Medical professionals call this ischemia.
  • This can cause various symptoms depending on which organ system is affected. The symptoms range from pain, cold feet, and bluish discoloration to stroke or gangrene; if it is not reversed, the body part affected is injured and eventually starts to die. It is important to detect the narrowed artery before damage occurs. The pulses in the arm or leg are decreased or absent, indicating a lack of arterial blood flow.

Peripheral vascular disease is a very common condition in the United States.

  • It occurs mostly in people older than 50 years. Peripheral vascular disease is a leading cause of disability among people older than 50 years and in those with diabetes.
  • About 10 million people in the United States have peripheral vascular disease, which translates to about 5% of people older than 50 years.
  • The number of people with the condition is expected to grow as the population ages.
  • Men are slightly more likely than women to have peripheral vascular disease.
  • Peripheral vascular disease is more common in smokers, and the combination of diabetes and smoking almost always results in more severe disease.

About half of people with peripheral vascular disease do not have symptoms. Of those who do, another half do not tell their health care providers.

  • Many people seem to think that this is a normal part of aging, and that nothing can be done or that the only alternative is surgery. Today, however, surgery is only one of several effective treatments available for peripheral vascular disease.
  • Treating peripheral vascular disease medically is the best way to prevent worsening of the condition or complications. This is especially true for patients with hypertension or diabetes, those with high fats or lipids in the blood, and those who smoke.

WebMD Medical Reference from eMedicineHealth

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