If you suspect you might have peripheral arterial disease, time is of the essence. Here’s a list of questions to consider when seeing your health-care team.
Peripheral arteries deliver oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to the tissues outside the heart. Arteries have smooth linings and flexible walls that allow blood to pass freely, but as you age, your arteries become stiffer and thicker. Things such as smoking and high cholesterol can also damage the artery lining. This allows a buildup of fat and other materials (known as plaque) to form within the artery walls, leading to peripheral artery disease.
What is PAD?
The buildup of plaque narrows the space inside the artery and sometimes blocks blood flow. Peripheral arterial disease occurs when blood flow through the arteries is reduced because of plaque buildup. It often happens in the legs and feet, but it can also happen elsewhere in the body. If the buildup occurs in the carotid artery, the large artery in the neck, it can lead to stroke.
“Early identification of PAD is critical,” said Louis Garrard, M.D., an associate professor of Clinical Vascular Surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It allows us to start treatment in order to reduce progression and symptoms for patients — and in some patients will give us a better chance to save their limb and reduce their risk of stroke or heart attack.”
“PAD is a lifelong process that requires continued treatment and monitoring,” Garrard added. “But with proper treatment and surveillance, serious consequences can be avoided.”
Symptoms of peripheral artery disease
About half the people diagnosed with PAD have no symptoms. “For those with symptoms, the most common first symptom is painful leg cramping that occurs with exercise and is relieved by rest,” said Garrard. “During rest, the muscles need less blood flow, so the pain disappears.” The pain may occur in one or both legs, depending on the location of the clogged or narrowed artery. Other symptoms of PAD may include:
- Changes in the skin, including decreased skin temperature, or thin, brittle, shiny skin on the legs and feet
- Weak pulses in the legs and the feet
- Hair loss on the legs or toes
- Wounds that won’t heal in the feet or legs, such as heels, ankles or toes
- Numbness, weakness, or heaviness in muscles
- Paleness when the legs are elevated
- Reddish-blue discoloration of the extremities
- Restricted mobility
- Thickened, opaque toenails
What to ask your health-care provider about PAD
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s time to see your health-care team to discuss PAD. It’s always a good idea to bring a list of questions with you, and, if possible, a family member or friend who can participate in the discussion and take notes. Here are some questions you might consider asking your provider about peripheral artery disease treatment and management:
- What are the stages of PAD? Which stage am I in?
- What are the possible complications of PAD?
- What can I do to manage my condition?
- Do I need to make diet changes?
- What activities should I be doing?
- Are there certain activities I should avoid?
- Are there medicines I can take to ease my symptoms?
- What sorts of treatments for PAD are available?
- Am I a good candidate for those treatments?
- What are the signs that my condition is worsening?
- When should I contact my health-care providers?
If you have peripheral artery disease, you know what it’s like to have painful legs, difficulty walking or a sore that won’t heal. The vascular specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center can help. The Vanderbilt Peripheral Artery Disease Program offers a variety of treatments to help your legs feel better.