Peripheral Vascular Disease: 9 Things to Know

  • group of smiling seniors sitting in circle during support group session
    What to Know About Peripheral Vascular Disease (Peripheral Arterial Disease)
    If you have been diagnosed with peripheral vascular disease (PVD), you may also hear or see the term peripheral arterial (or artery) disease (PAD). They are the same thing. The definition of peripheral vascular disease is narrowing or blockage of blood vessels resulting in reduced blood flow through the peripheral vessels—excluding those supplying blood to the heart and brain. The condition is fairly common, with approximately 8.5 million people in the United States living with PVD. Up to 20% of them are older than 60.

  • Close-up of woman's hand holding calf muscle on right leg
    1. Leg cramps could be your first sign of PVD.
    Leg cramps are one of the most common and noticeable peripheral vascular disease symptoms. Signs and symptoms often start in the legs and feet. Cramps could occur at rest, but also when you are walking or exercising. If the cramping occurs while you move, this is claudication. Your leg or foot may also feel a bit numb or tingly because of the decreased blood circulation to the area. The affected foot or lower leg may feel cooler to touch and paler than the other one because it’s not getting enough blood. You may also notice the nails and hair on the affected limb grow more slowly.

  • doctor or nurse pointing to swollen foot and ankle with gout; bandage covering ankle sore from large tophus
    2. Sores may form on your leg or foot.
    You may notice that, if you injure your leg or foot, it is slow to heal, or it may not heal at all. Broken skin needs good blood flow for the nutrients. These allow your body to start rebuilding or repairing the cells. If you do have sores, it’s important to watch for signs of infection as the longer a sore is present, the longer you are at risk of developing an infection. Watch for increasing redness around the area, discharge or pus, and increased pain.

  • illustration of artery filled with hard plaque (atherosclerosis)
    3. The most common cause of PVD is atherosclerosis.
    Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty deposits called plaques build up and cause blockages in your arteries. Another name for it is ‘hardening of the arteries.’ The most common causes of atherosclerosis include hypertension (high blood pressure), smoking, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Other risk factors include being obese, not being physically active, a family history of heart disease, being male or a postmenopausal female, and being older. While you can’t do anything about your sex, age or family history, if you reduce other risks of atherosclerosis, you may reduce your risk of developing PVD.

  • Young man with broken leg at home
    4. Trauma or injury can cause peripheral vascular disease.
    While atherosclerosis is the most common cause of PVD, there are other causes as well. They include injuring your arm or leg causing trauma to the blood vessels. An irregularity of the muscles or ligaments can also damage blood vessels, as can an infection. If the cause is an injury or infection, treating these could reverse PVD. Other less common causes include phlebitis (inflammation of a vein), arthritis, and autoimmune diseases. Radiation therapy is another known trigger of PVD.

  • Senior man having a stroke
    5. Peripheral vascular disease isn’t limited to one part of your body.
    If your doctor finds you have plaque buildup in your leg blood vessels, you very likely have plaque buildup elsewhere. Peripheral vascular disease is not a condition that comes on suddenly. It is present for a while before you see symptoms, and even the symptoms may not be noticed right away. Once you notice them, damage in the blood vessels has already occurred. After PVD sets in, you are at risk of developing complications, such as a heart attack, stroke, or limb ischemia—decreased blood flow causes tissue death and may result in amputation.

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    6. Diagnosing peripheral vascular disease involves a simple test.
    Diagnosing PVD begins with a physical exam and taking your family history. Your doctor will check your limbs, looking for differences in temperature and appearance. The pulse in the limbs are also compared, to see if one is slower than the other. A test called the ankle-brachial index compares the blood pressure in your foot to the blood pressure in your arm. Other tests include ultrasound, angiography, and blood tests. While blood tests can’t confirm you have PVD, they can indicate to your doctor if you may have other conditions that could cause PVD, like high cholesterol or diabetes.

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    7. Medical treatment for peripheral vascular disease is similar to heart disease.
    If you have PVD, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions to try to slow down or reverse damage to your blood vessels. Your doctor may prescribe medications to prevent blood clots (anticoagulants, also called blood thinners). There are also drugs that can help promote blood flow, as well. Severe cases of PVD may require surgery to open up the blood vessel. Procedures include angioplasty and bypass surgery, similar to how cardiac surgeons treat coronary artery disease.

  • Senior woman in hospital bed
    8. Women may have more PVD complications than do men with PVD.
    Both men and women develop PVD, but studies show that women experience more severe disease than do men. That observation came from a large study that also looked at gender differences in treatment. When doctors performed treatments like angioplasties or bypass surgery, the overall outcome between men and women was similar. Although women experienced more complications (such as blood transfusions and embolisms) than men, the operation was more technically successful in female patients. There were no sex differences regarding myocardial infarctions (heart attacks) or strokes.

  • two-women-exercising
    9. Peripheral vascular disease treatment at home is important.
    There are some noninvasive lifestyle changes you can make to help manage PVD. Exercising is one way to help improve blood flow to your limbs. However, talk with your doctor before embarking on a new exercise program to ensure it is safe for you. Other things you can do at home: don’t cross your legs; elevate your feet but only a bit—not higher than your heart; keep your legs and feet warm; and don’t smoke. If you have been diagnosed with PVD, watch your limbs carefully for sores. The better you follow your PVD treatment plan, the better your chances of not having complications.

9 Things to Know About Peripheral Vascular Disease

About The Author

Marijke Vroomen Durning, RN, has been writing health information for the past 20 years. She has extensive experience writing about health issues like sepsis, cancer, mental health issues, and women’s health. She is also author of the book Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Medications and How to Take Them Safely.
  1. Firnhaber JM, Powell CS. Lower Extremity Peripheral Artery Disease: Diagnosis and Treatment. Am Fam Physician. 2019 Mar 15;99(6):362-369. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2019/0315/p362.html
  2. Peripheral Arterial Disease. Merck Manual. https://www.merckmanuals.com/en-ca/professional/cardiovascular-disorders/peripheral-arterial-disorders/peripheral-arterial-disease
  3. Peripheral Vascular Disease. CardioSmart; American College of Cardiology. https://www.cardiosmart.org/Heart-Conditions/Peripheral-Vascular-Disease
  4. Peripheral Vascular Disease. Johns Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/peripheral-vascular-disease
  5. Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) Fact Sheet. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_pad.htm
  6. Jackson EA, Munir K, Schreiber T, et al. Impact of sex on morbidity and mortality rates after lower extremity interventions for peripheral arterial disease: observations from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Cardiovascular Consortium. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014 Jun 17;63(23):2525-2530. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2014.03.036. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24747101


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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Nov 3
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