Peripheral vascular disease restricts the flow of blood through the vessels beyond the heart. Circulation disorders in these vessels, which carry oxygen and other nutrients to vital organs and tissues, are most often caused by atherosclerosis (also called hardening of the arteries), a progressive disease process caused when plaque (composed of fat, cholesterol, and other substances) is deposited on the inner wall of the artery.
Over time, the inside diameter of the artery narrows (called stenosis), and blood flow through the artery is reduced or stopped. Plaque commonly forms in the iliac arteries (lower abdomen) and the femoral and popliteal arteries (legs).
Blocked arteries cannot supply an adequate amount of oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles. WheI1 this blockage occurs in the arteries to the legs, the result is cramp-like pain in the hips, thighs, or calves, often severe enough to limit walking. This pattern of pain, which is relieved with rest, is called intermittent claudication.
Rest pain, as the name implies, occurs during rest rather than during exercise. Sometimes lowering the legs will provide relief as gravity forces more blood to the foot.
Gangrene-death of the tissue-can occur when blood circulation is so severely restricted that the legs do not receive the nutrients they need to survive. Without treatment, the entire foot or part of the leg may be lost to disease.
Other symptoms of peripheral vascular disease in the lower extremity include:
- Coldness of the leg and foot
- Paleness of the leg or foot when elevated
- Blue/red discoloration of the foot or toes
- Loss or decreased growth of hair on the legs
- Dry, fragile, shiny-looking skin
- Numbness, tingling, or pain in the leg, foot, or toes
- Sores that do not heal
Because other conditions may cause these symptoms, a thorough examination is necessary.