Peripheral artery disease, or PAD, occurs when fatty and calcified deposits known as plaque build-up in the arteries supplying your legs and feet. This build-up can limit blood flow and cause pain and soreness. Often mistaken for arthritis or nerve problems, PAD can be misdiagnosed as various chronic leg pain conditions.
While both men and women suffer from PAD at similar rates, it tends to more commonly affect those in older demographics. The CDC estimates that approximately 6.5 million people aged 40 and older have PAD. Those with high-blood pressure, a history of tobacco use, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol are also at high risk of having PAD.
The most common symptom of PAD is intermittent claudication. Intermittent claudication is pain and cramping of the legs that only occurs while you are walking, and goes away when you stop and rest. The root cause of this symptom is blockage (stenosis) of the leg arteries, preventing the proper amount of blood from traveling from the heart to the leg muscles.
PAD can also cause slow-healing wounds, sores or discoloration of the skin, hair loss on the legs, and a burning and aching pain in the feet or toes. The symptoms of PAD will often affect one leg worse than the other, though both legs can suffer some level of pain. If ignored, these symptoms can worsen, and lead to severe health complications including gangrene requiring amputation.
PAD is diagnosed by a physical exam conducted by your primary care physician, who will look for a weak arterial pulse or improperly healing wounds. If these tests are not conclusive, the doctor may order an ankle-brachial index, which tests the blood pressure in the ankles. An ultrasound or an angiogram may also be necessary to determine if you have PAD.