What Is Peripheral Artery Disease?

Peripheral artery disease illustration

Peripheral artery disease occurs when plaque gradually builds up and hardens inside your peripheral arteries leading to your legs, stomach, arms and head. Plaque consists of cholesterol, calcium and other fatty substances which can partially or completely block blood flow. When these arteries are narrowed or blocked, blood can't move through and nourish your body's tissues, causing damage to your muscles in your lower extremities.

Your risks for peripheral artery disease increase if you’re a smoker, have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. With this condition, there is a risk of blood clots forming or the plaque splintering, which can completely block the arteries, cut off oxygen supply.

What are the Symptoms of Peripheral Artery Disease?

Since some of the symptoms of peripheral artery disease, such as cramping, seem mild, many people mistake them for something else. It's important that you get an accurate diagnosis, since peripheral artery disease can lead to a stroke, heart attack, gangrene or amputation if left untreated.

You could experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Cramping in the leg, hip or calf muscles following activities such as climbing stairs.
  • Cold feeling in your lower leg or foot.
  • Leg weakness or numbness.
  • Sores on your toes, feet or legs that don't heal well.
  • Change in skin color in your legs.
  • Hair loss or slower hair growth on your legs.

Diagnosis of Peripheral Artery Disease

To accurately diagnose your peripheral artery disease, you'll need a thorough physical examination and one or more of the following tests:

  • Blood tests.
  • Ultrasound.
  • Ankle Brachial Index (comparison test of blood pressure in ankle and arm).
  • Angiography (x-ray of your blood vessels).

Treatment at Penn

Changes to your lifestyle and diet combined with medications may be all you need to help manage your condition. If your peripheral artery disease is more advanced, you may require interventional or surgical procedures, such as angioplasty or bypass surgery.

When you choose Penn Medicine, you will work with a highly specialized team of cardiologists, electrophysiologists and surgeons who continue to lead and advance the field. Penn surgeons practice at the highest level, treating some of the most complex surgical cases.

Because of Penn's size and diversity, our clinicians have a depth of skill in procedures ranging from minor to complex. In addition, Penn offers a variety of approaches not commonly available at other medical centers.

Penn Programs & Services for Peripheral Artery Disease

Vascular Medicine

Providing comprehensive, non-surgical care for patients with vascular conditions

Vascular Surgery and Endovascular Therapy

Providing the most advanced surgical and endovascular care for vascular disease

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