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Peripheral Arterial Disease

Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) is a prevalent, chronic disease that affects more than 20 percent of people over 70 years of age in the United States. People with PAD are three to 10 times more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than people without the disease.

Peripheral arterial disease occurs when arteries in the legs are narrowed or blocked by atherosclerosis, a slow process in which deposits of fat, cholesterol and calcium build up inside an artery, also known as plaque. PAD results in decreased blood supply to the feet and legs. If left untreated, PAD can result in amputation of a foot or leg. Arterial blockages can also occur in other arteries of the body, including arteries to the arms, kidneys, intestines and brain.

An aneurysm is a weak, bulging part of the artery wall that can rupture (burst). Aneurysms most often occur in the abdominal aorta, the large main artery down the middle of the body; they can also occur in the iliac, femoral and popliteal arteries in the leg. If an aneurysm is not repaired, rupture of the aneurysm or blockage within the aneurysm may occur. This can be a life and/or limb-threatening condition.

Blood clots may also cause a blockage in an artery. Platelets found in the blood may attach to the rough surface of the artery, clump together and form a blood clot. Blood clots also form in the heart and in aneurysms. A clot can break off and lodge in an artery and block blood flow.

Risk Factors

Risk factors are habits, traits or conditions that may increase a person's chance of developing atherosclerosis. Risk factors for peripheral arterial disease that cannot be changed include:

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Gender (male or post-menopausal female)

Risk factors that can be controlled or modified include:

  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Cigarette smoking: The single most important risk factor
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure


A blockage in an artery to the legs may cause the following symptoms:

  • Coolness of the legs
  • Impotence in men
  • Loss of hair on toes, feet and legs
  • Non-healing wound or gangrene
  • Pain in calves, thighs, and/or buttocks during walking and relieved with rest
  • Pain in the feet at rest with severe blockage
  • Skin discoloration
  • Thickening of toenails
  • Tingling, numbness in the legs

A sudden blockage in an artery to the legs may cause the following symptoms:

  • Coolness
  • No pulse
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Paleness or whiteness
  • Paralysis (cannot move)
  • Sudden onset of pain

Aneurysms in the leg may not produce any symptoms; however, if symptoms are present, they may include:

  • Blue toes
  • Pulsating feeling behind the knee
  • Swelling behind the knee


Diagnosis of peripheral arterial disease is made using the following tests:


Learn more about peripheral arterial disease treatments.

Clinical Trials

Ongoing clinical research trials at the Center for Vascular Disease are investigating new treatment options for peripheral arterial disease to ensure that our patients continue to receive the most innovative care in the country. For more information regarding these clinical trials, visit the Clinical Trials Unit of Northwestern, send an e-mail or call 312-926-4000.

Contact Us Today

For more information regarding peripheral arterial disease and the treatments available, please contact the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at 866-662-8467. To schedule an appointment, please call 312-695-4965 or request a first time appointment online.

Last UpdateNovember 23, 2012