Harvard Heart Letter

Artery disease below the belt

Peripheral artery disease can be debilitating and dangerous.

Most often, concern about atherosclerosis (when fatty deposits clog arteries) centers on the coronary arteries, which serve the heart. But the arteries outside the heart—the so-called peripheral arteries—are also vulnerable.

When you're active, your leg muscles need extra oxygen. But narrowed arteries in the legs can't deliver enough blood and oxygen to keep up with the demand. The result is pain in the calf, thigh, or buttock while walking that goes away with rest. Known as claudication, it's the classic symptom of peripheral artery disease (PAD). But many people with PAD either don't have symptoms or mistake them for another problem. As a result, PAD often goes unrecognized.

"That's a problem, because people with PAD almost certainly have widespread atherosclerosis, which puts them at risk for a heart attack, stroke, and acute limb ischemia," says Dr. Marc Bonaca, a vascular medicine specialist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. Acute limb ischemia is similar to a heart attack, but the blood clot blocks a narrowed leg artery. In severe cases, amputation may be necessary. "Because people depend on their mobility to function, acute limb ischemia can be even more disabling than a heart attack," notes Dr. Bonaca.

To continue reading this article, you must login.
  • Research health conditions
  • Check your symptoms
  • Prepare for a doctor's visit or test
  • Find the best treatments and procedures for you
  • Explore options for better nutrition and exercise
Learn more about the many benefits and features of joining Harvard Health Online »