Understanding PAD (Peripheral Arterial Disease) and What Causes It

What is PAD?

Important terms to know:

  • PAD stands for Peripheral Arterial Disease
  • Arteries are a type of blood vessel in your body. In general, arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to parts of your body that need it
  • Plaque is a buildup of fat and other substances in your arteries

In general, PAD is caused by plaque buildup in the leg arteries that limits blood flow.

What are the symptoms and risks of PAD?

 If you have PAD, you may:

  • Feel pain in your legs
  • Experience heaviness and cramping in your legs
  • Often not walk as far or as fast as you were able to in the past

PAD symptoms can happen when:

  • Arteries become narrower due to plaque buildup
  • Not enough blood gets to your legs

The risks of PAD

If you have reduced blood flow due to plaque buildup in the arteries in your legs, also known as Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD), you are at risk of having it in other arteries, including those in your heart or brain. Clogged arteries in those parts of your body can increase your chance of having a heart attack or stroke.

If you have clogged arteries in your legs, you may also have plaque buildup in the arteries in your heart. Both can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Not everyone who has PAD knows that they have it. If you think you may have symptoms of PAD, don’t assume that what you are feeling is “just part of getting older.” Talk to your health care provider about PAD.

How is PAD diagnosed?

PAD is generally diagnosed through an exam done in your health care provider’s office or through other testing.

When seeing your health care provider, it’s important to tell him or her if you have symptoms that may include:

  • Heaviness or pain in your legs
  • Cramping in your legs

To find out if you have PAD, your health care provider may do:

  • A physical exam
  • A pulse check in your legs and feet to see how your blood is flowing
  • An Ankle-Brachial Index test (it compares the blood pressure in your ankle to the blood pressure in your arm to understand how well blood is flowing throughout your body)
  • In some cases, a treadmill test to check how severe your symptoms are

People with PAD are at increased risk of problems with their heart or other blood vessels, including heart attacks and strokes.

What is a heart attack?

Heart attacks can be caused by coronary heart disease, also called coronary artery disease. Coronary heart disease happens when plaque builds up in the coronary arteries and limits blood flow to the heart. Plaque can slowly build up in your arteries over many years and may lead to a heart attack.

What is a stroke?

There are different types of strokes. One common type of stroke can occur when arteries to the brain become blocked. When that happens, part of the brain cannot get the blood it needs.

What are the risk factors for a heart attack or stroke?

Medical conditions that can increase your chance of having a heart attack or stroke include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes

Lifestyle behaviors that can increase your risk of a heart attack or stroke include:

  • Unhealthy diet
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not being active

How you can reduce the risks associated with PAD

If you have PAD, your health care provider may suggest lifestyle changes including:

  • Losing weight
  • Eating a healthier diet
  • Quitting smoking
  • Adding physical activity to your daily routine

Regular physical activity may help lower high blood pressure and/or cholesterol and help you lose weight. Even 30 minutes of moderate activity on most, if not all, days of the week can help keep your heart healthy.

Your health care provider may also prescribe medicines to help reduce the risks associated with PAD. It is important to take all of your medicines as directed by your health care team.

Taking an active role in treatment

Talk to your health care provider about PAD. When you are at the office, be sure to:

  • Ask any questions you may have about your condition and treatments
  • Talk to your health care provider about how you’re feeling
  • Tell your health care provider about any symptoms you might have

Here are a few tips to think about before your next visit:

  • If you get nervous, it may help to write your questions down ahead of time
  • If your health care provider says something that is confusing, don’t be afraid to ask him or her to explain it in a different way
  • Bring a family member or friend to help you

Work in partnership with your health care team to help manage risks associated with PAD.

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