Left untreated, Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) can result in the development of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD), heart attacks, or strokes. Yet despite the dangers associated with PAD, the American Heart Association estimates that only 25% of the population is aware of the disease. In fact, the SAGE group estimates that there are as many as 12.5 million Americans currently suffering from PAD without realizing it.
The most common cause of PAD is atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries brought on by a buildup of plaque (fatty deposits) in the blood vessels. Without proper treatment, atherosclerosis can cause plaque deposits in an individual’s lower extremities, resulting in PAD. PAD is marked by decreased blood flow in the legs, feet and toes, and the symptoms include:
- Claudication (mild to severe pain while walking or climbing stairs)
- Leg numbness or weakness
- Coldness in the lower leg or foot on one side of the individual’s body
- Open sores on the toes and feet that won’t heal
As noted above, untreated PAD can lead to CAD, cardiac events, and/or atherosclerotic stroke. More immediate symptoms, however, can include the onset of gangrene in the feet or toes, ischemic rest pain (pain in the lower extremities that occurs even without physical activity), and a general diminishment of an individual’s quality of life.
Fortunately, PAD is treatable — depending on the severity of the disease and its progression, there are multiple treatment options available to individuals.
The least-invasive treatment option consists of simple lifestyle changes. PAD is common among smokers and individuals who suffer from diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and/or high cholesterol. In individuals with milder forms of PAD, certain lifestyle adjustments — such as smoking cessation, dietary improvements, and an exercise regimen — can be enough to address the symptoms of PAD and those of its underlying comorbidities.
Depending on the severity of the disease, some PAD sufferers may require medication in addition to the lifestyle changes noted above. Where pharmaceutical treatment is required, providers commonly prescribe high blood pressure medicine and antiplatelet medications (which thin the blood and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke) such as aspirin or Plavix.
In milder cases of PAD where exercise will likely improve a patient’s outcome, providers may also prescribe Pletal, a medication that allows individuals to walk greater distances before claudication sets in.
Interventional and Surgical Procedures
Patients with more advanced cases of PAD may require interventional procedures such as angioplasty to widen or clear the blocked vessel, stent placement to keep blood vessels open, or atherectomy to remove the blockage in the blood vessel.
There are also surgical options available to PAD sufferers; while research is currently in progress on new therapies, patients with advanced PAD may also need to consider peripheral artery bypass surgery. With peripheral artery bypass, an artificial blood vessel is placed next to the blocked artery, and the blood is rerouted to the “new” blood vessel, thereby avoiding the blockage.