Prevent and treat peripheral arterial disease

During heart month we think about heart attacks and strokes and how to prevent them.

One often overlooked condition that impacts the heart is peripheral arterial disease (PAD). This condition affects at least 12 million Americans.

Diagnosis of PAD can signal other vascular problems that could hurt your heart such as arthrosclerosis, or hardening of the heart arteries or build up of plaque in the carotid arteries which can be a cause of stroke.

With PAD, the vessels that carry blood to your arms and legs narrow due to plaque buildup or clotting. The decreased blood flow may keep organs or limbs supplied by these veins from functioning normally.

A common symptom of PAD is legs that feel tired or painful with just a little exertion.

The pain goes away when you rest because the muscles need less blood flow.

If the condition becomes extremely advanced, pain may occur even while you are at rest.

Painful, cold and tingling limbs are another sign of PAD. So are painful sores that develop around the ankle, feet, or toes and won’t heal.

PAD occurs in both women and men. Because women tend to develop their symptoms in their 60s and 70s, about a decade later than men, they may blame their symptoms on other conditions such as arthritis or nerve damage, which can delay diagnosis until the disease is far advanced. Early diagnosis and treatment of PAD is ideal to keep the condition from worsening.

In some cases, PAD can be reversed. If you notice pain in your calf muscles with exertion, and you are not typically active, mention this to your doctor immediately.

To diagnose PAD, your doctor may check for the pulse in your feet. He may also take your ankle-brachial index which is a comparison of the blood pressure readings taken at your arm and ankle.

Ultrasound also is used to examine the vascular system when PAD is suspected. Identifying PAD early can give you a head start in preventing stroke or heart attack due to plaque build-up in other arteries.

PAD can often be prevented and treated with lifestyle modifications such as:

Stopping smoking

Taking measures to control diagnosed diabetes

Getting at least 30 minutes of activity each day

In some cases these steps can completely eliminate symptoms of PAD.

There are a variety of medical treatments for PAD.

Medications can help thin the blood to improve its flow to the extremities. Angioplasty or stenting can be used to widen the openings of arteries. Bypass surgery, to reroute blood flow around a blocked or narrowed artery, is used in some cases.

Without treatment PAD can worsen and limit blood flow to the point of causing the loss of a limb, infection of an unhealed wound or stroke.

It’s important to report symptoms such as fatigue and pain in the legs to your doctor so your condition can be diagnosed and treated before it progresses.

Dr. Eric Adams is a vascular surgeon at Susquehanna Health’s Heart and Vascular Institute.