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Recognizing the Signs of Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD)

Sep 12, 2022
Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) occurs when the blood vessels in your arms and legs are narrowed by sticky plaque deposits. Learn all about the risk factors and warning signs of this serious — and exceptionally common — circulatory condition.

When your circulatory system is healthy, blood moves freely and with just the right amount of pressure through your veins and arteries. Free-flowing vessels keep oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood streaming to all your bodily tissues, from your brain and organs to your arms and legs. 

But when those vessels become clogged by sticky deposits of fat and cholesterol (plaque), they no longer serve as the free-flowing conduit your body needs to maintain healthy tissues. Known as atherosclerosis, this common cardiovascular problem sets the stage for peripheral vascular disease (PVD).

For as severe as PVD can become, it’s also highly treatable — and in some cases, reversible — when it’s caught early and addressed without delay. Read on as our seasoned vascular experts at Somerset Surgical Associates, LLC discuss the risk factors and warning signs of PVD, and explain what you can do about it.

Peripheral vascular disease: A common problem

PVD is a systemic disorder of narrowed peripheral blood vessels caused by atherosclerosis, or the buildup of sticky plaque in the vessels (veins and arteries) that carry blood to and from your extremities (arms and legs). 

Also called peripheral artery disease (PAD) because of its chronic effects on the supply of blood, oxygen, and nutrients going to your extremities, PVD is a serious cardiovascular condition that develops gradually and typically progresses without treatment. 

Statistics

PVD is exceptionally common in the United States, affecting an estimated 8 to 12 million adults at any given time. Despite its prevalence, however, PVD is underdiagnosed, leaving millions of people vulnerable to its unchecked progression. 

Risk factors

Although anyone can develop PVD, certain risk factors make it more likely. Uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • Advanced age (65 years and older) 
  • Personal history of atherosclerosis
  • Family history of PVD or heart disease

Like the risk factors for other cardiovascular disorders, the most potent risk factors for PVD are modifiable or manageable. These include:

  • Tobacco use (top PVD risk factor)
  • Inactivity; lack of regular exercise
  • A diet that’s rich in saturated fat
  • Unhealthy blood cholesterol levels
  • Uncontrolled high blood pressure 
  • Diabetes; high blood sugar levels 

Knowing your risk factors for PVD and seeing your primary care doctor for regular wellness exams can help you prevent or stay one step ahead of this insidious disease. 

Warning signs of peripheral vascular disease

One reason PVD is underdiagnosed is that it often develops silently, or without noticeable symptoms. In such cases, knowing your personal PVD risk factors can be invaluable.

PVD affects the lower extremities most often. The most common warning sign is intermittent claudication, or painful muscle cramping (usually in the calves) that’s triggered by activity and eased by rest. This cramping leg pain is the muscles’ way of signaling the body that it doesn’t have enough blood flow to meet the increased demands of movement. 

Other lower extremity PVD symptoms include: 

  • A “pins-and-needles” feeling in your legs or feet
  • Burning pain in your feet at night, when resting 
  • Cooler skin temperature on your lower legs or feet
  • Significantly slower leg hair and toenail growth 
  • Leg numbness or weakness; balance problems
  • Erectile dysfunction in men who also have diabetes

As lower extremity PVD advances, it may cause:

  • An arterial occlusion that triggers persistent leg pain 
  • Shiny, itchy skin on your legs; changes in skin color
  • Non-healing sores (ulcers) on your legs, ankles, or feet

Less commonly, PVD can affect your arms. Its warning signs are very similar, beginning with intermittent claudication, or painful arm muscle cramping triggered by activity and relieved by rest. Pins-and-needles sensations in your hands and arms, cooler skin temperature, finger pain, and slower arm hair and fingernail growth are other upper extremity PVD symptoms.

How can I stop peripheral vascular disease?

It’s imperative to remember that only about 25% of people with PVD experience the common symptoms we’ve described above, while more than 50% have atypical symptoms, or the kind that aren’t considered frequent warning signs. About 20% of people with PVD don’t have any symptoms at all. 

But no matter what their symptoms (or lack thereof) happen to be, everyone with PVD shares the same elevated risk of developing complications and/or suffering a heart attack or stroke. 

If diagnostic testing shows you have early-stage PVD, you may be able to halt or drastically slow its advancement through targeted lifestyle modifications (smoking cessation, physical activity, heart-healthy eating) and any necessary medical interventions (cholesterol and blood pressure control, diabetes management). 

In more severe PVD cases, surgical intervention may be recommended. Our team can treat advanced PVD through peripheral bypass surgery, angioplasty and stenting, atherectomy, and endovascular revascularization

If you’re worried you might have PVD, we can help. Call 908-725-2400 to reach Somerset Surgical Associates, LLC in Somerville, New Jersey today, or use our online booking feature to schedule a visit with one of our seasoned vascular specialists any time.

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