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What Causes Peripheral Artery Disease?

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The most common cause of peripheral artery disease (PAD) is atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque builds up in your arteries. The exact cause of atherosclerosis isn't known.

The disease may start if certain factors damage the inner layers of the arteries. These factors include:

  • Smoking
  • High amounts of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood
  • High blood pressure
  • High amounts of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance or diabetes

When damage occurs, your body starts a healing process. The healing may cause plaque to build up where the arteries are damaged.

Eventually, a section of plaque can rupture, causing a blood clot to form at the site. The buildup of plaque or blood clots can severely narrow or block the arteries and limit the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your body.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Peripheral Artery Disease?

Many people who have peripheral artery disease don't have any signs or symptoms.

Even if you don't have signs or symptoms, ask your doctor whether you should get checked for PAD if you're:

  • Aged 70 or older
  • Aged 50 or older and have a history of smoking or diabetes
  • Younger than 50 and have diabetes and one of more risk factors for atherosclerosis

Intermittent Claudication

People who have PAD may have symptoms when walking or climbing stairs, which may include pain, numbness, aching, or heaviness in the leg muscles. Symptoms also may include cramping in the affected leg(s) and in the buttocks, thighs, calves, and feet. Symptoms may ease after resting. These symptoms are called intermittent claudication.

During physical activity, your muscles need increased blood flow. If your blood vessels are narrowed or blocked, your muscles won't get enough blood, which will lead to symptoms. When resting, the muscles need less blood flow, so the symptoms will go away.

Other Signs and Symptoms

Other signs and symptoms of PAD include:

  • Weak or absent pulses in the legs or feet
  • Sores or wounds on the toes, feet, or legs that heal slowly, poorly, or not at all
  • A pale or bluish color to the skin
  • A lower temperature in one leg compared to the other leg
  • Poor nail growth on the toes and decreased hair growth on the legs
  • Erectile dysfunction, especially among men who have diabetes

Source: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Patients should call 1.855.9BAYLOR (1.855.922.9567) for a referral to a physician on The Heart Hospital Baylor medical staff that specializes in peripheral vascular disease. Referring physicians may call 469.814.3480 to schedule a patient for evaluation.

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