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Peripheral vascular disease

If you’re concerned about your heart health, keep an eye on your arms and legs. They’re the most likely targets for peripheral vascular disease (PVD), a narrowing of the blood vessels that can lead to complications.

PVD involves the buildup of plaque—the same sticky substance that leads to coronary artery disease—in the peripheral arteries outside your heart. As the arteries become blocked, they are less able to transport nourishing blood to the arms, legs and other body parts.

PVD often runs its course silently until the blood vessels become so clogged that cardiologists must open them to avoid permanent damage to the surrounding tissues and limbs.

Unfortunately, an artery can be 60 percent or more blocked before the first warning sign—pain in the area—occurs.

Recognizing PVD symptoms

The amount of discomfort or pain you feel from the condition depends on the blockage’s severity and location.

PVD commonly occurs in the legs. Sufferers often complain of a cramping pain (called claudication) when they walk. This is a message from your muscles that they’re not getting enough nutrients to do their job properly.

PVD sufferers may also experience numbness or tingling, red or bluish skin discoloration, changes in skin temperature, buttocks pain, impotence and infections that won’t go away.

Diagnosing PVD

Doctors can use several alternatives to determine if you are suffering from PVD:

  • The ankle brachial index is a simple, noninvasive test that measures blood pressure in and around the affected area.
  • Ultrasound can help determine if a specific artery is clogged by providing an image of the inside of the blood vessel using sound waves.
  • An angiogram can provide a blueprint of the blockage. During this test, a cardiologist injects dye into an artery to identify blockages on X-rays.

Treating the condition

If you are diagnosed with PVD, your doctor will consider a variety of treatments. Sometimes he or she may combine therapies to achieve the best results possible. This may include lifestyle changes, medications or surgery.

Aspirin and blood thinners can help prevent clotting right from the start. Cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins can reduce the plaque that forms in the arteries. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help lower your blood pressure and improve circulation. He or she may also direct a clot-busting drug directly into your blood vessels to clear the passageways.

If your doctor decides to surgically remove the plaque from your arteries, he or she may choose to perform angioplasty. During angioplasty, the cardiologist inserts a tiny balloon into the blood vessel and then inflates the balloon to open the clogged area. Sometimes, the cardiologist will permanently place a tiny metal cylinder or “stent” in the congested vessel to help keep it open.

Another therapy, called atherectomy, involves inserting a special cutting catheter directly into the vessel to slice through the sticky plaque.

In some cases, patients may need bypass surgery to build “detours” around the blocked and damaged vessels so the blood can continue to reach and nourish various parts of the body.

Lifestyle changes make a difference

If you’ve been diagnosed with PVD or you want to reduce your risk for the condition, consider these lifestyle changes:

  • If you smoke, stop. Nicotine narrows the blood vessels, and carbon monoxide from the smoke damages the artery lining.
  • Check your feet, especially if you’re a diabetic. PVD may play a role in damaging the blood vessels of the legs and feet. This condition can go unnoticed until an infection or sore develops.
  • Keep your blood pressure in check to ensure proper circulation.
  • Watch your cholesterol. Work with your doctor to get and keep your numbers in the normal range.
  • Exercise. Walking will help you maintain a healthy weight, decrease your cholesterol buildup and improve your overall circulation.
  • Eat a low-fat, low-salt diet that stresses vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish and low-fat meats.
  • Talk with your doctor about using a pressurized “cuff,” which may help improve overall circulation. This slipper-like device contains an inflatable pad that pressurizes every few minutes.
  • Get regular checkups if you have a family history of coronary artery disease.