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General Medical Questions
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Question : What is peripheral vascular disease?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.

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October 24, 2013
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Peripheral vascular disease is an older name for peripheral arterial disease. The name was changed to make it clear that the arteries rather than the veins are involved. Arteries carry blood away from the heart to the rest of the body. Veins carry blood back to the heart.

The peripheral arteries include the lower part of the aorta (the main pipeline for oxygenated blood out of the heart), as well as blood vessels that supply the stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, arms, and legs.

Peripheral arterial disease means there are blockages to blood flow in the arteries. The cause is atherosclerosis. It starts with fatty deposits called plaques forming inside the artery walls. Over time, the plaques get hard. The artery walls stiffen and narrow. And the diseased arteries can’t always deliver as much oxygen and nutrients as the affected parts of the body need.

The legs are the most common body part to be affected by peripheral arterial disease. The first symptom is often a mild ache in one or both legs with brisk walking. Later on, walking becomes restricted because leg pain starts after shorter walks.

With advanced disease, the blood vessels become very narrow. Leg pain can happen at rest. If this happens, immediate medical care is needed to prevent amputation.

The most important way to prevent and treat peripheral arterial disease is not smoking. Other treatments include an exercise program, daily aspirin, and a statin drug for high cholesterol. Sometimes, other drugs that help blood move more easily through arteries can help, too.

 

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