Harvard Men's Health Watch

Peripheral artery disease screening

Q. My senior center is sponsoring a test to check for "peripheral artery disease." The test is free, and they say it's safe and painless. Do you think it's a good idea?

A. Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is a form of atherosclerosis. In this case, cholesterol deposits produce blockages in the arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood to your legs. Mild blockages don't cause any symptoms, but more substantial disease can cause leg pain when you walk, which is called intermittent claudication. And severe narrowing will produce pain at rest or, worst of all, critical tissue damage that requires urgent surgery or even amputation. If that's not bad enough, PAD also indicates an increased risk for heart attacks and strokes.

About 8 million Americans have PAD, and the majority are men. Your doctor can screen for PAD simply by asking if you have symptoms and by feeling the pulses in your legs and feet. In addition, a painless, safe, simple test can detect PAD and estimate its severity. Called the ankle-brachial index, or ABI, it's simply a matter of using a special device to take blood pressure readings in your arms and legs, and then comparing the numbers.

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