Peripheral Arterial Disease

What Is It?

In peripheral arterial disease (previously called peripheral vascular disease), not enough blood flows to the legs. The condition usually is caused by fatty deposits called plaques that build up along the walls of blood vessels. This buildup shrinks the size of the passageway and reduces the amount of blood that can flow through. This is a condition called atherosclerosis.

The risk factors for getting peripheral arterial disease are similar to the risk factors for coronary heart disease, and include:

  • Smoking cigarettes or using other forms of tobacco (such as snuff and chew)

  • An abnormally high level of cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia)

  • An abnormally low level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the good cholesterol)

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • Diabetes

  • Family history of cardiovascular disease

  • Obesity

  • Physical inactivity (too little regular exercise)

  • Kidney disease

  • Race (blacks appear to have a higher risk of developing the disease)


The most common symptom of peripheral arterial disease is intermittent claudication – pain or cramping in the legs or buttocks that starts when you exercise and goes away when you rest. Often the pain is described as a deep ache, especially in the calf muscle. The pain may extend to the foot or up toward the thigh and buttock. Sometimes, there is just numbness in the leg or a sense that one leg gets tired when you walk. A foot or toes also may feel cold or numb.

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