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.

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