6 things you may not know about peripheral vascular disease
Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is a common condition that affects over 10 million people in the U.S. In fact, it’s estimated that 1 in 10 people over the age of 65 have PVD. Interventional cardiologist Summer Aldrugh, MD, explained what to know about PVD, including what to do if you think you might have the condition.
What is peripheral vascular disease?
Vascular disease is when there is a buildup of plaque, formed mainly of cholesterol, on the walls of the arteries that supply blood to your legs and other organs.
“Peripheral vascular disease can affect anywhere in your body,” Dr. Aldrugh said. “It can affect your carotid, the blood vessels that surround your brain, and the ones that go to your legs and arms. Most often in our patients, we see it affecting the legs.”
PVD that affects the legs is known as peripheral arterial disease, or PAD.
Here are six things to know about PVD and PAD:
1. You may not have symptoms.
Many people with PVD or PAD have no symptoms, but others who do have symptoms that lead them to seek care complain of fatigue or pain while walking.
“A patient may tell us that they used to be able to walk a block or two and now they can’t finish a block without having fatigue, especially affecting their buttocks, their thighs and the back of their calves,” Dr. Aldrugh said. “Sometimes it is described as pain, like a burning sensation in their legs or in the back of their calves or thighs.”
Other symptoms of PVD can include skin that is pale or cool to the touch and sores or wounds that heal slowly or not at all.
2. PVD can lead to amputation.
Amputation is a common complication that comes from having long-standing, untreated peripheral vascular disease.
“In South Carolina, the Columbia ZIP code 29203 has the highest amputation rate in the country at about 10%,” Dr. Aldrugh said.
3. You can reduce your risk for PVD.
Although genetics and age impact your risk for PVD, there are lifestyle factors you can control, including:
- Smoking. Those who smoke tobacco have a two to four times higher risk for developing peripheral vascular disease.
- Chronic health conditions. Conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure increase your risk for peripheral vascular disease.
- Overweight and obesity. Excess weight can contribute to conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which can lead to PVD.
“To prevent PVD, it’s important to quit smoking, control your diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure and exercise regularly,” Dr. Aldrugh said.
4. PVD can be diagnosed with a simple test.
If you’re having symptoms or if you have risk factors for PVD, a noninvasive test called an ankle brachial index can be used in a physician’s office to test for PVD. This test compares the blood pressure in the ankle to the blood pressure in the upper arm. A blood pressure cuff is applied to your arm and to your lower leg, which generates a number that can indicate if the blood flow is normal or diminished.
5. PVD can be treated.
Dr. Aldrugh said patients who are diagnosed with PVD are strongly encouraged to quit smoking and control their chronic conditions. In addition, cholesterol medications to stabilize the plaque and slow down progression of the disease might be prescribed, as well as other medications to help control pain.
Although PVD can’t be reversed, symptoms can be improved through interventional methods such as bypass surgery or minimally invasive endovascular treatments that break up the plaque and restore blood flow.
6. Walking helps.
It might be surprising to hear that you need to walk when you’re dealing with leg pain, but walking just 20 minutes a day can actually increase the blood supply to your lower legs, which over time will improve your symptoms.
The bottom line about peripheral vascular disease
“Peripheral vascular disease is a common condition that is not often recognized,” Dr. Adrugh said. “If you have symptoms or risk factors, it’s important to see your doctor.”
Find a cardiologist you trust
We make it easier to get the care your heart needs, with cardiologists located near you.Learn More