The most common symptom of peripheral artery disease (PAD) in the lower extremities is a painful muscle cramping in the hips, thighs or calves when walking, climbing stairs or exercising.
The pain of PAD often goes away when you stop exercising, although this may take a few minutes. Working muscles need more blood flow (View an animation of blood flow). Resting muscles can get by with less.
If there's a blood-flow blockage due to plaque buildup, the muscles won't get enough blood during exercise to meet the needs. The "crampy" pain (called "intermittent claudication"), when caused by PAD, is the muscles' way of warning the body that it isn't receiving enough blood during exercise to meet the increased demand.
Many people with PAD have no symptoms or mistake their symptoms for something else (View an illustration of PAD).
Symptoms of severe PAD include:
- Leg pain that does not go away when you stop exercising
- Foot or toe wounds that won't heal or heal very slowly
- A marked decrease in the temperature of your lower leg or foot particularly compared to the other leg or to the rest of your body
Understanding leg pain
Many people dismiss leg pain as a normal sign of aging. You may think it's arthritis, sciatica or just "stiffness" from getting older. For an accurate diagnosis, consider the source of your pain. PAD leg pain occurs in the muscles, not the joints.
Those with diabetes might confuse PAD pain with a neuropathy, a common diabetic symptom that is a burning or painful discomfort of the feet or thighs. If you're having any kind of recurring pain, talk to your healthcare professional and describe the pain as accurately as you can. If you have any of the risk factors for PAD, you should ask your healthcare professional about PAD even if you aren't having symptoms.
PAD diagnosis begins with a physical examination.
Your healthcare provider will check for weak pulses in the legs. Your physical examination may include the following:
- Ankle-brachial index (ABI): a painless exam that compares the blood pressure in your feet to the blood pressure in your arms to determine how well your blood is flowing. This inexpensive test takes only a few minutes and can be performed by your healthcare professional as part of a routine exam. Normally, the ankle pressure is at least 90 percent of the arm pressure, but with severe narrowing it may be less than 50 percent.
Watch a video about ankle-brachial index testing:
If an ABI reveals an abnormal ratio between the blood pressure of the ankle and arm, you may need more testing. Your doctor may recommend one of these other tests.
- Doppler and Ultrasound (Duplex) imaging: a non-invasive method that visualizes the artery with sound waves and measures the blood flow in an artery to indicate the presence of a blockage.
- Computed Tomographic Angiography (CT): a non-invasive test that can show the arteries in your abdomen, pelvis and legs. This test is particularly useful in patients with pacemakers or stents.
- Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA): a non-invasive test that gives information similar to that of a CT without using X-rays.
- Angiography: (generally reserved for use in conjunction with vascular treatment procedures) During an angiogram, a contrast agent is injected into the artery and X-rays are taken to show blood flow, arteries in the legs and to pinpoint any blockages that may be present. Learn more about peripheral angiogram.
As stated earlier, PAD often goes undiagnosed. Untreated PAD can be dangerous because it can lead to painful symptoms or loss of a leg, and patients with PAD have an increased risk of coronary artery disease, stroke and heart attack. Because people with PAD have this increased risk for heart attack and stroke, the American Heart Association encourages people at risk to discuss PAD with their healthcare professional to ensure early diagnosis and treatment.
Learn more about risk factors for PAD.
This content was last reviewed on 8/05/2014.