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Peripheral Vascular Disease

What is peripheral vascular disease?

Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is a slow and progressive circulation disorder. Narrowing, blockage, or spasms in a blood vessel can cause PVD.

PVD may affect any blood vessel outside of the heart including the arteries, veins, or lymphatic vessels. Organs supplied by these vessels, such as the brain, and legs, may not get enough blood flow for proper function. However, the legs and feet are most commonly affected.

Peripheral vascular disease is also called peripheral arterial disease. 

What causes peripheral vascular disease?

The most common cause of PVD is atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque inside the artery wall. Plaque reduces the amount of blood flow to the limbs. It also decreases the oxygen and nutrients available to the tissue. Blood clots may form on the artery walls, further decreasing the inner size of the blood vessel and block off major arteries.

Other causes of PVD may include:

  • Injury to the arms or legs
  • Irregular anatomy of muscles or ligaments
  • Infection

People with coronary artery disease (CAD) often also have PVD. 

Who is at risk for peripheral vascular disease?

A risk factor increases your chance of developing a disease. Some can be changed, others cannot. 

Risk factors that you can’t change:

  • Age (especially older than age 50)
  • History of heart disease
  • Male gender
  • Postmenopausal women
  • Family history of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or peripheral vascular disease

Risk factors that may be changed or treated include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Overweight
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking or use of tobacco products

Those who smoke or have diabetes have the highest risk of complications from PVD because these risk factors also cause impaired blood flow. 

What are the symptoms of peripheral vascular disease?

About half the people diagnosed with PVD are symptom free. For those with symptoms, the most common first symptom is painful leg cramping that occurs with exercise and is relieved by rest (intermittent claudication). During rest, the muscles need less blood flow, so the pain disappears. It may occur in one or both legs depending on the location of the clogged or narrowed artery.

Other symptoms of PVD 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
  • Gangrene (dead tissue due to lack of blood flow)
  • Hair loss on the legs
  • Impotence
  • Wounds that won't heal over pressure points, such as heels or ankles
  • Numbness, weakness, or heaviness in muscles
  • Pain (described as burning or aching) at rest, commonly in the toes and at night while lying flat
  • Paleness when the legs are elevated
  • Reddish-blue discoloration of the extremities
  • Restricted mobility
  • Severe pain when the artery is very narrow or blocked
  • Thickened, opaque toenails

The symptoms of PVD may look like other conditions. See your healthcare provider for a diagnosis. 

How is peripheral vascular disease diagnosed?

Along with a complete medical history and physical exam, other tests may include:

  • Angiogram. This is an X-ray of the arteries and veins to detect blockage or narrowing. This procedure involves inserting a thin, flexible tube into an artery in the leg and injecting a contrast dye. The contrast dye makes the arteries and veins visible on the X-ray.
  • Ankle-brachial index (ABI). An ABI is a comparison of the blood pressure in the ankle with the blood pressure in the arm using a regular blood pressure cuff and a Doppler ultrasound device. To determine the ABI, the systolic blood pressure (the top number of the blood pressure measurement) of the ankle is divided by the systolic blood pressure of the arm. 
  • Doppler ultrasound flow studies. This uses high-frequency sound waves and a computer to create images of blood vessels, tissues, and organs. Your doctor may use the Doppler technique to measure and assess the flow of blood. Faintness or absence of sound may mean blood flow is blocked. 
  • Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA). This noninvasive test uses a combination of a large magnet, radio frequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures in the body. Your doctor injects a special dye during the procedure so that blood vessels are more visible. 
  • Treadmill exercise test. For this test, you will walk on a treadmill so your doctor can monitor blood circulation during exercise.
  • Photoplethysmography (PPG). This exam is comparable to the ankle brachial index except that it uses a very tiny blood pressure cuff around the toe and a PPG sensor (infrared light to evaluate blood flow near the surface of the skin) to record waveforms and blood pressure measurements. Your doctor can then compare these measurements to the systolic blood pressure in the arm.
  • Pulse volume recording (PVR) waveform analysis. Your doctor uses this technique to calculate blood volume changes in the legs using a recording device that displays the results as a waveform.
  • Reactive hyperemia test. This test is similar to an ABI or a treadmill test but used for people who can't walk on a treadmill. While you are lying on your back, your doctor takes comparative blood pressure measurements on the thighs and ankles to determine any decrease between the sites. 

What is the treatment for peripheral vascular disease?

The main goals for treatment of PVD are to control the symptoms and halt the progression of the disease to lower the risk for heart attack, stroke, and other complications. 

Treatment may include:

  • Lifestyle changes to control risk factors, including regular exercise, proper nutrition, and quitting smoking
  • Aggressive treatment of existing conditions that may worsen PVD, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol
  • Medicines to improve blood flow, such as antiplatelet agents (blood thinners) and medicines that relax the blood vessel walls
  • Vascular surgery —a bypass graft using a blood vessel from another part of the body or a tube made of synthetic material is placed in the area of the blocked or narrowed artery to reroute the blood flow
  • Angioplasty — your doctor inserts a catheter (long hollow tube) to create a larger opening in an artery to increase blood flow. There are several types of angioplasty procedures, including:
    • Balloon angioplasty (a small balloon is inflated inside the blocked artery to open the blocked area)
    • Atherectomy (the blocked area inside the artery is "shaved" away by a tiny device on the end of a catheter)
    • Laser angioplasty (a laser is used to "vaporize" the blockage in the artery)
    • Stent (a tiny coil is expanded inside the blocked artery to open the blocked area and is left in place to keep the artery open)

An angiogram may be done before angioplasty and vascular surgery. 

What are the complications of peripheral vascular disease?

Complications of PVD most often occur because of decreased or absent blood flow. Such complications may include:

  • Amputation (loss of a limb)
  • Poor wound healing
  • Restricted mobility due to pain or discomfort
  • Severe pain in the affected extremity
  • Stroke (3 times more likely in people with PVD)


Following an aggressive treatment plan for PVD can help prevent complications.

Can I prevent peripheral vascular disease?

To prevent PVD, take steps to manage the risk factors. A prevention program for PVD may include:

  • Quit smoking, including avoidance of second hand smoke and use of any tobacco products
  • Dietary changes including reduced fat, cholesterol, and simple carbohydrates (such as sweets), and increased amounts of fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean meats
  • Treatment of high blood cholesterol with medicine as determined by your healthcare provider
  • Weight loss
  • Limiting or quitting alcohol intake
  • Medicine to reduce your risk for blood clots, as determined by your healthcare provider
  • Exercise 30 minutes or more daily
  • Control of diabetes
  • Control of high blood pressure

To prevent or lessen the progress of PVD, your doctor may recommend a prevention plan. 

When should I call my healthcare provider?

If your symptoms get worse or you get new symptoms, let your healthcare provider know.

Key points about peripheral vascular disease

  • Peripheral vascular disease can affect all types of blood vessels.
  • Blood flow is restricted to the tissue because of spasm or narrowing of the vessel.
  • This disease more often affects the blood vessels in the legs.
  • The most common symptom is pain, which becomes worse as the circulation more limited.
  • Restoring blood flow and preventing disease progression is the goal of treatment.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.
Online Medical Reviewer: Mancini, Mary, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Taylor, Wanda, RN, PhD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/1/2016
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