Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is caused by a process called atheroclerosis, where fatty deposits (called plaque) build up inside the arteries. The job of the arteries is to carry blood from the heart to other parts of the body. When arteries become partly or completely blocked with plaque, the flow of blood is restricted, which interferes with the delivery of oxygen and nutrients that your muscles and organs need to work properly. When you walk, climb stairs, play sports or are physically active in any way, your muscles and organs require even more blood that usual. When the muscle can’t get more blood due to the blockage of the arteries from PAD, the muscles are in pain. When you rest, the pain goes away (unless the blockage is severe) because the muscles are receiving the blood and oxygen they need.
How Did This Happen?
PAD doesn’t happen overnight. Atherosclerosis is a disease process that occurs to some degree or another in everyone. The longer you live, the more time plaque has to build up in your arteries. But getting older isn’t the only factor that causes or contributes to an increased risk for PAD. Keep reading to learn more about risk factors for PAD. It’s never too late to control risk factors you can and to reduce your risk for more serious problems.
Risk Factors You May Be Able to Control
- Smoking. It’s time to quit. You’ve probably heard many reasons for quitting, but did you know that as many as half the people who have PAD and don’t quit smoking will have a heart attack or stroke, or will die, within five years? Get help. Several studies have found that smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day may increase the risk of PAD by 30 to 50 percent. And it can affect your treatment and recovery, too. Patients who continue to smoke after treatment for PAD with angioplasty or surgery tend to lose the benefit of the procedure sooner than those who stop smoking.
- Diabetes. If you have diabetes you are at greater risk for PAD and heart disease. And, diabetes can affect the nerves, which can interfere with your ability to feel pain in your legs and feet. Work with your doctor to carefully manage your diabetes.
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol. Get them checked regularly and work with your doctor to make sure they are not putting you at risk.
Risk Factors You Can’t Control But Should Be Aware Of
- Coronary artery disease. If you’ve already had a blockage or narrowing of the coronary or other arteries, you are at increased risk of having similar problems with the arteries leading to your legs.
- Age. If you’re over 70 or over 50 with other risk factors, you should talk to your doctor about PAD.Atherosclerosis is a process that occurs over the course of your lifetime, so the longer you live, the more plaque can potentially build up and clog the arteries.
- Family history of cardiovascular disease. Ask your doctor if your family history puts you at greater risk for PAD. Download and print Questions to Ask Your Doctor about PAD to remember this and other important questions to ask your doctor.
Higher levels of homocysteine (an amino acid) and C-reactive protein in the blood have been associated with greater risk for PAD; however, it is unclear if having these higher levels actually contributes to the disease.
Because PAD and coronary artery disease are both caused by the process of atherosclerosis, they share many of the same risk factors. To learn more about minimizing your risk factors for PAD and cardiovascular disease, visit SecondsCount’s center on Risk Factor Modification.