Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) Overview

Pain in your legs...again? You probably chalk it up to nothing more serious than a strenuous walk or an unwise shoe choice. In fact, it could be a symptom of a dangerous and little-known condition called peripheral artery disease (PAD), one that puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke or amputation.

Leg Up Image - Masterfile

Peripheral artery disease also is called atherosclerosis obliterans (pronounced ath"er-o-skleh-RO'sis -ä-blit-er-ranz) or peripheral vascular disease. This condition causes reduced blood flow, usually in the legs and feet.

In peripheral artery disease, deposits (called plaque) build up in the walls of blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the rest of the body (i.e., arteries). Arterial plaque is made up of fats, cholesterol, and other substances. When plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, the arteries narrow and blood flow is reduced. This condition is called atherosclerosis or "hardening of the arteries."

Normally, the arterial walls have the ability to expand, allowing the arteries to open wider (dilate) to increase blood flow. This additional blood flow is needed during physical activity, such as exercise. In atherosclerosis, plaque can cause the walls to stiffen and lose the ability to dilate, restricting the flow of blood and increasing the risk for heart attack and stroke. If a plaque ruptures (bursts), a blood clot may form, completely blocking the artery.

PAD is similar to coronary artery disease, which affects arteries that supply blood to the heart (coronary arteries), and carotid artery disease, which affects arteries that supply blood to the brain (carotid arteries). The term "peripheral" means "occurring away from the center." Peripheral artery disease often causes pain, difficulty walking, and sores on the skin that do not heal normally.

Incidence and Prevalence of PAD

Peripheral artery disease is a common condition. Although it can occur in both men and women, PAD usually affects men who are over 50 years of age.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), PAD affects approximately 8–12 million people in the United States. About 5 percent of people over the age of 50 and as many as 20 percent of people over the age of 65 may have peripheral artery disease.

According to the National PAD Coalition, some research suggests the condition affects one out of three people who are over 50 and suffer from diabetes. Being African-American, a smoker or former smoker, or having high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a history of heart attack, stroke or vascular disease also make you more likely to develop PAD.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 13 May 2008

Last Modified: 29 Sep 2015