The vascular system is the body’s network of blood vessels. It includes the arteries, veins and capillaries that carry blood to and from the heart. Problems of the vascular system are common and can be serious. Arteries can become thick and stiff, a problem called atherosclerosis. Blood clots can clog vessels and block blood flow to the heart or brain. Weakened blood vessels can burst, causing bleeding inside the body.
What causes peripheral vascular disease?
The most common cause of peripheral vascular disease is atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, a gradual process by which cholesterol plaques (material) builds up and causes inflammation in the inner walls of the arteries. This cholesterol plaque builds up over time and may block, narrow, or weaken the blood vessel walls, which results in restricted or blocked blood flow.
Signs and symptoms
Approximately half of people with peripheral artery disease do not experience any symptoms. For patients with symptoms, the most common symptoms are intermittent claudication and rest pain.
Intermittent claudication refers to arm or leg pain or cramping in the arms or legs that occurs with exercise and goes away with rest. The severity and location of the pain of intermittent claudication vary depending upon the location and extent of blockage of the involved artery. The most common location of intermittent claudication is the calf muscle of the leg, leading to calf or leg pain while walking. The pain in the calf muscle occurs only during exercise such as walking, and the pain steadily increases with continued walking until the patient has to stop due to intolerable pain. Then the pain quickly subsides during rest. Intermittent claudication can affect one or both legs.
Rest pain in the legs occurs when the artery occlusion is so critical that there is not enough blood and oxygen supply to the legs even at rest and represents a more serious form of the condition. The pain typically affects the feet, is usually severe, and occurs at night when the patient is lying down, face up.
Other symptoms and signs of peripheral artery disease include:
- Numbness of the legs or feet
- Weakness and atrophy (diminished size and strength) of the calf muscle
- A feeling of coldness in the legs or feet
- Changes in color of the feet; feet turn pale when they are elevated, and turn dusky red in dependent position
- Hair loss over the top of the feet and thickening of the toenails
- Poor wound healing in the legs or feet
- Painful ulcers and/or gangrene in areas of the feet where blood supply is lost; typically in the toes