Aging & Health A to Z
Peripheral Artery Disease
Causes & Symptoms
The most common cause of peripheral artery disease is atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque (deposits of cholesterol, fats and other substances) in the walls of your arteries. If plaques become large enough, they can reduce blood flow through the artery. Plaques can also rupture, causing a blood clot to form in the artery, which can further reduce, or completely block blood flow.
What is the difference between peripheral artery disease and coronary heart disease?
Atherosclerosis in the arteries that supply blood to the heart causes coronary artery disease. Atherosclerosis in the “peripheral” arteries (outside or away from the heart) causes peripheral artery disease. Because these two conditions are both caused by atherosclerosis, many people with peripheral artery disease also have coronary artery disease.
Peripheral artery disease and coronary artery disease share the same risk factors as well. Risk factors for peripheral artery disease include:
- Older age
- Male gender
- Black race
- Family history of cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke) at an early age (40s for men; 50s for women)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
*Smoking and diabetes are the strongest risk factors for peripheral artery disease.
Up to half of people with peripheral artery disease have no symptoms. The most common symptom is
pain in the calves, thighs, or buttocks when you exercise these muscles. This pain is called “claudication” and is caused by the inability of the narrowed artery to supply enough blood to the working muscle. Some patients have “intermittent claudication”—pain that occurs with exercise and subsides with rest. When blockages in the artery become severe, pain can occur even at rest, especially when lying down at night.
Other symptoms of peripheral artery disease include:
- Leg numbness or weakness
- Coldness in your lower leg or foot
- Sores on your legs or feet that won't heal
- A change in the color of your legs
- Loss of hair on your feet and legs
- Slower growth of your toenails
- Shiny skin on your legs
- Erectile dysfunction in men
Sometimes, a blood clot lodges in an artery and blocks blood flow, causing tissue damage. If you have peripheral artery disease and experience sudden, intense leg pain, seek medical attention or call 911 immediately.
Older adults may have decreased blood flow to their legs or feet, and even serious tissue damage, without being aware of it. That’s because circulation problems can decrease pain sensations, and poor vision may make it difficult to see skin color or texture changes. Older adults with diabetes are at special risk, because of the nerve and vision damage that diabetes can cause. Be sure your healthcare provider examines your feet and circulation in your legs frequently.
Older adults may also assume that their leg or foot pain is due to other causes, such as arthritis, so it is important to tell your healthcare provider about any pain you are having.
Updated: November 2016
Posted: March 2012