Peripheral arterial disease

This is the name given to the narrowing of the arteries within the arms and legs which results in painful cramps and poor circulation.

It can affect other areas of the body such as the brain, abdomen and arms but is more commonly seen in the legs.

Causes of peripheral artery disease

There are several causes of this disease, all of which lead to a build up of fatty deposits or plaque within the arteries. The most common cause is atherosclerosis but others include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Insulin resistance
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol levels
  • Poor lifestyle (unhealthy diet and lack of exercise)
  • Age (the risk increases over time)

How does this relate to high blood pressure?

High blood pressure puts a hefty strain on your arteries which causes them to narrow and thicken over time. This forces the heart to work much harder than normal which causes problems in the long term, e.g. diabetes, kidney failure etc.

This narrowing of the arteries leads to a partial or complete blockage which prevents blood from passing through to an internal organ, e.g. the heart.

It is important that blood circulates around the body as it transports oxygen and other essential nutrients which are vital to sustain life. But if this supply is restricted in any way then problems will arise.

In the case of peripheral arterial disease, the blockage occurs in the arteries within the arms and legs which affect blood circulation.

High blood pressure not only causes the arteries to narrow and harden; it also causes a build up of fats and cholesterol (known as plaques) within the artery which causes further damage. These plaques appear wherever there is damage within the artery as part of the body’s healing process.

But these plaques crack and form blood clots over time which then sticks to the walls of your arteries. This results in your arteries becoming clogged up.

This clogging up is more popularly known as ‘furring’.

Symptoms of peripheral arterial disease

The most common indicator is a painful cramping in your arms and/or legs. This is more noticeable when you walk although it disappears when you stop. You may experience pain in your hips as well.

Someone with a chronic case of peripheral arterial disease will find that the pain persists for some time and that they have cold feet and calf muscles. They may also find that they have hair loss in those areas and develop sores which refuse to heal.

What causes the cramping?

This is caused by an inadequate blood flow to the muscles of your legs which mean that they do not receive oxygen and other vital nutrients. This diminished blood supply causes painful cramps.

Diagnosing peripheral arterial disease

If you notice any of these symptoms then see your GP. He or she will measure your blood pressure but will also check the blood pressure in your ankle.

If the blood pressure in your ankle is much lower than that of your arm then it probably means that the arteries have narrowed. This is an indication of peripheral arterial disease.

Treatment for peripheral arterial disease

It is possible to slow down the progression of this disease and in some cases, even reverse it. This means making a few changes to your lifestyle.

These include reducing the amount of saturated fats in your diet (switch to low fat alternatives), taking exercise such as walking and losing weight if need be. If you are a smoker then stop smoking.

Have your blood pressure checked and on a regular basis.

Your GP will prescribe anti-clotting medication (aspirin) and medication to lower your cholesterol levels e.g. statins. If you have high blood pressure then you will be given medication to reduce that.

What you are aiming to do is to lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of peripheral arterial disease. Changing to a healthy lifestyle will certainly help as will controlling your blood pressure.

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