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Recognizing the Signs of Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)

Sep 01, 2023
Recognizing the Signs of Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) develops when the blood vessels in your arms and legs are narrowed or blocked by sticky plaque deposits. Learn how to spot the warning signs of this serious — and very common — circulatory problem.

In a normal, healthy cardiovascular system, blood flows freely through your veins and arteries, exerting just the right amount of pressure as it circulates through your body. Clear, unblocked vessels allow oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to reach and sustain all your bodily tissues, from your brain and internal organs to the skin on the tips of your extremities. 

But when sticky plaque deposits become lodged in the walls of your blood vessels, they no longer function as free-flowing conduits. Known as atherosclerosis, this common circulatory condition is what sets the stage for peripheral artery disease (PAD) — a progressive chronic illness that causes restricted blood flow in your arms and legs.  

Luckily, PAD is treatable — and sometimes reversible — when it’s detected in its early stages and addressed by our interventional vascular specialists at Third Coast Vascular. Read on as Dr. Awais Siddique discusses the ins and outs of PAD, from risk factors and warning signs to treatment options. 

From atherosclerosis to PAD 

Atherosclerosis is the accumulation of tacky fat and cholesterol (plaque) deposits within the walls of the vessels (arteries and veins) that keep blood circulating through your body. When this viscous material builds up in the linings of the vessels that extend through your arms and legs (extremities), it lays the foundation for PAD. 

Also referred to as peripheral vascular disease (PVD), PAD is a serious cardiovascular condition that affects the flow of oxygen and nutrients to your arms and legs. It tends to develop slowly, progressing to advanced stages in the absence of interventional care. 

PAD statistics

PAD affects up to 12 million adults in the United States at any given time. Even so, experts warn that PAD remains underdiagnosed, leaving potentially millions more vulnerable to its unchecked progression. 

PAD risk factors

Anyone can develop PAD, but certain risk factors make it more likely. PAD risk factors that you can’t change include:

  • Personal history of atherosclerosis
  • Family history of PAD/heart disease
  • Advancing age (60 years or older) 

The most significant PAD risk factors are common, but it’s not all bad news — they’re also the risk factors that happen to be modifiable or manageable. These include: 

  • Smoking cigarettes; tobacco use
  • Sedentary lifestyle; lack of regular exercise
  • Obesity; carrying extra belly fat 
  • A diet that’s rich in saturated fat
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure 
  • Unmanaged prediabetes/diabetes

Knowing your personal risk factors for PAD — and having annual exams and preventive health screenings with your primary care physician — can help you prevent PAD or keep the disease on your radar, putting you in a better position to recognize its early symptoms. 

Common PAD warning signs 

PAD affects the lower extremities (legs and feet) most often. During its first stage, the condition develops silently, or without noticeable symptoms. Furthermore, more than one in two people with PAD don’t have any symptoms at all until the disease is relatively advanced and their blood vessels have already narrowed by 60% or more

That’s why it’s especially important to take action and see our team if you experience any of the following PAD warning signs:

Intermittent claudication

Intermittent claudication, or painful leg muscle cramping that occurs with physical activity and eases with rest, is one of the most common early warning signs of PAD. Sudden, painful leg cramping is your muscles’ way of signaling your body that it doesn’t have enough blood flow and oxygen to meet the increased demands of movement. 

Abnormal sensations

PAD may trigger a “pins-and-needles” feeling in your legs or feet, or burning pain in your feet at night, when you’re resting. Ischemic pain, or leg pain when resting, is considered the third stage PAD development, following stage one (no symptoms) and stage two (claudication).  

Physical leg changes

Over time, the poor lower extremity circulation caused by PAD can lead to physical changes in the tissues that no longer receive adequate levels of nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood. When you reach this fourth stage of PAD, you may notice:  

  • Cooler skin temperature on your lower legs or feet
  • Numbness in legs or feet
  • Shiny, itchy skin on your legs; changes in skin color
  • Non-healing sores (ulcers) on your legs, ankles, or feet

While less common, PAD can also affect your arms. Upper extremity PAD symptoms are similar, beginning with intermittent claudication (activity-induced arm muscle cramps) and progressing to pins-and-needles sensations, resting arm pain, and slow hair and nail growth. 

You can slow or reverse PAD

Fortunately, targeted lifestyle changes help prevent PAD or slow its advancement: Reaching a healthy body weight, quitting smoking, getting more active, and adopting a heart-healthy diet are our top recommendations. If you have diabetes, kidney disease, high cholesterol, and/or hypertension, effective chronic disease management is also essential. 

Severe PAD often requires surgical intervention. Dr. Siddique treats it by removing the atherosclerosis and helps re-open the arteries. 

If you’re worried about PAD, we can help. Call your nearest Third Coast Vascular office in Sheboygan or Milwaukee, Wisconsin today, or use our online booking feature to schedule a visit with our seasoned vascular specialists any time.