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What Is Peripheral Arterial Disease?


Updated September 09, 2013

What Is Peripheral Arterial Disease?

Having high cholesterol could place you at risk for having peripheral arterial disease.

Copyright: A.D.A.M.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a chronic condition that involves the arteries outside of the head and heart. The limbs -- especially the legs -- are the most commonly affected areas of the body. Although there can be many causes of PAD, it is most often due to atherosclerosis -- known more casually as "hardening of the arteries."

The Role of Cholesterol in PAD

Cholesterol plays a key role in this process, which is why -- among other reasons -- your doctor is so vocal about you maintaining healthy levels.

During the process of atherosclerosis, cholesterol and other lipids deposit themselves on inflamed areas on the inner wall of arteries. Over time, these lipids will form a thick, waxy area known as a plaque. As the plaque continues to build up, it may eventually narrow or even obstruct blood flow to tissues. This limited blood supply prevents affected muscles and other tissues from getting the oxygen and nutrients they need to function.

Beyond high cholesterol, there are certain other factors that can place you at risk for getting PAD, including age, diabetes, and smoking.

What Does PAD Feel Like?

High cholesterol symptoms aren't exactly readily noticeable, and the same goes for PAD. You may not experience any symptoms of PAD at first. In fact, up to half of individuals with PAD may not even know they have it. However, as the arteries become narrower, symptoms may become more apparent. You may notice painful cramps that occur in the affected muscle groups of the legs during prolonged or vigorous exercise. Referred to as intermittent claudication, this is the most commonly experienced symptom of PAD. Additionally, you may notice numbness or that cuts or sores do not heal easily in the limbs.

How Is PAD Treated?

Your healthcare provider will run a series of tests in order to determine whether or not you have PAD. If you are diagnosed with PAD, there are many treatment options available to you, including surgery or medications that can improve your painful symptoms, control your cholesterol, and prevent the formation of blood clots. Additionally, your healthcare provider will recommend lifestyle changes, including:


Aronow H. Peripheral arterial disease in the elderly. Am J Cardiovasc Drugs 2008;8:353-364.

Fauci AC, Kasper DL, Longo DL et al. Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. 17th edition, 2008.

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