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Learning About Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)

A leg artery narrowed by plaque.

What is peripheral arterial disease?

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is narrowing or blockage of arteries that causes poor blood flow to your arms and legs. PAD is most common in the legs.

The most common cause of PAD is the buildup of plaque on the inside of arteries. Over time, plaque builds up in the walls of the arteries, including those that supply blood to your legs. If you have PAD, you're likely to have plaque in other arteries in your body. This raises your risk of a heart attack and stroke.

Medicines and lifestyle changes may lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. They may also help if you have symptoms. In some cases, surgery or other treatment is needed.

Peripheral arterial disease is also called peripheral vascular disease.

What are the symptoms?

Many people who have PAD don't have symptoms.

If you have symptoms, they may include a tight, aching, or squeezing pain in your calf, thigh, or buttock. This pain is called intermittent claudication. It usually happens after you have walked a certain distance. The pain goes away if you stop walking. As PAD gets worse, you may have pain in your foot or toe when you aren't walking.

Other symptoms may include weak or tired legs. You might have trouble walking or balancing.

If PAD gets worse, you may have other symptoms caused by poor blood flow to your legs and feet. These symptoms aren't common. They may include cold or numb feet or toes, sores that are slow to heal, or leg or foot pain when you're at rest.

How can you prevent PAD?

  • Quit smoking. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do to help prevent PAD. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Manage other health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
  • Be physically active. Try to do moderate to vigorous activity at least 2½ hours a week. You may want to walk or try other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
  • Eat a variety of heart-healthy foods.
    • Eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and other high-fibre foods.
    • Eat lean proteins, such as seafood, lean meats, beans, nuts, and soy products.
    • Eat healthy fats, such as canola and olive oil.
    • Choose foods that are low in saturated fat and avoid trans fat.
    • Limit sodium and alcohol.
    • Limit drinks and foods with added sugar.

How is PAD treated?

Treatment for PAD focuses on relieving symptoms and lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke. Making healthy lifestyle changes can help you lower this risk.

  • If you smoke, quit. Quitting is the best thing you can do when you have PAD. Medicines and counselling can help you quit for good.
  • Get regular exercise (if your doctor says it's safe). Try walking, swimming, or biking for at least 2½ hours a week. If you have leg symptoms when you exercise, your doctor might recommend a specialized exercise program that may relieve symptoms. The goal is to be able to walk farther without pain.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, fish, and whole grains. Limit foods that have a lot of salt, fat, and sugar.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.

You may need medicines to help lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. These include medicine to prevent blood clots, improve cholesterol, or lower blood pressure.

People who have severe PAD may have bypass surgery or other procedures (such as angioplasty) to restore proper blood flow to the legs.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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