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What is Peripheral Arterial Disease?
Commonly referred to as “poor circulation,” Peripheral Arterial Disease (P.A.D.) is the restriction of blood flow in the arteries of the leg. When arteries become narrowed by plaque (the accumulation of cholesterol and other materials on the walls of the arteries), the oxygen-rich blood flowing through the arteries cannot reach the legs and feet.
The presence of P.A.D. may be an indication of more widespread arterial disease in the body that can affect the brain, causing stroke, or the heart, causing a heart attack.
Signs and Symptoms
Most people have no symptoms during the early stages of P.A.D. Often, by the time symptoms are noticed, the arteries are already significantly blocked.
Common symptoms of P.A.D. include:
If any of these symptoms are present, it is important to discuss them with a foot and ankle surgeon. Left untreated, P.A.D. can lead to debilitating and limb-threatening consequences.
Risk Factors of P.A.D.
Because only half of those with P.A.D. actually experience symptoms, it is important that people with known risk factors be screened or tested for P.A.D.
The risk factors include:
Diagnosis of P.A.D.
To diagnose P.A.D., the foot and ankle surgeon obtains a comprehensive medical history of the patient. The surgeon performs a lower extremity physical examination that includes evaluation of pulses, skin condition, and foot deformities to determine the patient’s risk for P.A.D. If risk factors are present, the foot and ankle surgeon may order further tests.
Several non-invasive tests are available to assess P.A.D. The ankle-brachial index (ABI) is a simple test in which blood pressure is measured and compared at the arm and ankle levels. An abnormal ABI is a reliable indicator of underlying P.A.D. and may prompt the foot and ankle surgeon to refer the patient to a vascular specialist for additional testing and treatment as necessary.
General Treatment of P.A.D.
Treatment for P.A.D. involves lifestyle changes, medication and, in some cases, surgery.
P.A.D. and Foot Problems
Simple foot deformities (hammertoes, bunions, bony prominences) or dermatologic conditions such as ingrown or thickened fungal nails often become more serious concerns when P.A.D is present. Because the legs and feet of someone with P.A.D. do not have normal blood flow—and because blood is necessary for healing—seemingly small problems such as cuts, blisters, or sores can result in serious complications.
Having both diabetes and P.A.D. further increases the potential for foot complications. People with diabetes often have neuropathy (nerve damage that can cause numbness in the feet), so they don’t feel pain when foot problems occur. When neuropathy occurs in people with P.A.D., ulcers can develop over foot deformities and may never heal. For this reason, P.A.D. and diabetes are common causes of foot or leg amputations in the United States.
Once detected, P.A.D. may be corrected or at least improved. The foot and ankle surgeon can then correct the underlying foot deformity to prevent future problems should the circulation become seriously restricted again.
Avoiding P.A.D. Complications
Getting regular foot exams—as well as seeking immediate help when you notice changes in the feet—can keep small problems from worsening. P.A.D. requires ongoing attention.
To avoid complications, people with this disease should follow these precautions:
Jeri M Gruenes, DPM
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