Peripheral Vascular Disease

What is peripheral vascular disease?

Peripheral vascular disease (PVD), also known as peripheral arterial disease, is a common condition in which there is a slow narrowing and hardening of the blood vessels in the legs. This causes poor blood flow and a lack of oxygen to the feet and legs. Smokers are mainly affected. Other risk factors are diabetes, high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure. Typical symptoms are pain, numbness, paleness, burning and heaviness of the legs. The diagnosis can often be made based on the symptoms and physical exam in a person who has risk factors for developing this condition. Treatment involves some lifestyle changes, getting good control of other medical conditions, and, if symptoms are severe, surgery. If this condition is not actively managed, the on-going lack of oxygen can cause the tissues in the feet and leg to die, and in the worse case, this may require amputation.

Risks

Peripheral vascular disease is the medical term for blood vessels (arteries) which do not effectively transport blood to the legs. When a tissue (a substance which makes up the body) doesn't get enough blood and oxygen, it is slow to heal after an injury and can eventually die. The most common cause for this is the formation of fatty collections in the blood vessels which eventually cause narrowing and slow or stop blood flow. These are more likely to form in people who smoke, who do not take enough exercise, and those who have other medical conditions, especially diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. This condition tends to affect people over 50 years of age, and becomes slightly more common with age. Men tend to be more commonly affected than women.

Symptoms

Common symptoms include pain, paleness, burning and heaviness of the legs or feet. These may start mild and worsen over the time. Many people also experience a painful aching in the leg muscles while exercising which gets better with rest. Other symptoms may be a loss of the hair on the legs, difficulty feeling a pulse in the feet and a blue or purple tinge to the skin. Erectile dysfunction may also be a symptom of this condition in men.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis is often suspected based on the symptoms and examination of the legs and hands, especially in people who are known to be at risk of developing this condition. An ultrasound which specifically looks at blood flow through blood vessels is commonly done. In some cases, especially before surgery, a scan using dye to closely look at the blood vessels (an angiogram) may be done.

Treatment

Treatment of peripheral vascular disease involves lifestyle changes, treating any other medical conditions and, sometimes, surgery. Giving up smoking, eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise can help to stop the peripheral vascular disease from getting worse. Getting good control of other medical conditions, especially high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes can also help to stop the progression of this disease and prevent the complications of this condition. If the condition is causing severe symptoms, surgery to bypass the blockage or the remove the plaques may be needed.

Prevention

Giving up smoking, eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise can help to prevent this condition. People with medical conditions which increase the risk of peripheral vascular disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, should aim for good control of these conditions and have regular medical check-ups.

Other names for peripheral vascular disease

  • Peripheral artery disease