Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD)

Peripheral arterial disease, also called PAD, occurs when blood vessels in the legs are narrowed or blocked by fatty deposits and blood flow to your feet and legs decreases.

If you have PAD, you have an increased risk for heart attack and stroke. An estimated 1 out of every 3 people with diabetes over the age of 50 have this condition. However, many of those with warning signs don't realize that they have PAD and therefore don't get treatment.

What Does Diabetes Have to Do With PAD?

If you have diabetes, you're much more likely to have PAD, a heart attack, or a stroke. But you can cut your chances of having those problems by taking special care of your blood vessels.

How Do I Know Whether I'm at High Risk for PAD?

Just having diabetes puts you at risk, but your risk is even greater under the following conditions:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Abnormal blood cholesterol levels
  • Overweight
  • Not physically active
  • Over age 50
  • History of heart disease, or you've have had a heart attack or a stroke
  • Family history of heart disease, heart attacks, or strokes

You can't change your age or your family history, but taking care of your diabetes and the conditions that come with it can lower your chances of having PAD.

What are the Warning Signs of PAD?

Many people with diabetes and PAD do not have any symptoms. Some people may experience mild leg pain or trouble walking and believe that it's just a sign of getting older. Others may have the following symptoms:

  • Leg pain, particularly when walking or exercising, which disappears after a few minutes of rest
  • Numbness, tingling, or coldness in the lower legs or feet
  • Sores or infections on your feet or legs that heal slowly

How is PAD Diagnosed?

The ankle brachial index (ABI) is one test used to diagnose PAD. This test compares the blood pressure in your ankle to the blood pressure in your arm. If the blood pressure in the lower part of your leg is lower than the pressure in your arm, you may have PAD. An expert panel brought together by the American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes over the age of 50 have an ABI to test for PAD. People with diabetes younger than 50 may benefit from testing if they have other PAD risk factors.

These other tests can also be used to diagnosis PAD:

  • Angiogram (AN-gee-oh-gram): a test in which dye is injected into the blood vessels using a catheter and X rays are taken to show whether arteries are narrowed or blocked.
  • Ultrasound: a test using sound waves to produce images of the blood vessels on a viewing screen.
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging): a test using special scanning techniques to detect blockages within blood vessels.

How is PAD Treated?

People with PAD are at very high risk for heart attacks and stroke, so it is very important to manage cardiovascular risk factors. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Quit smoking. Your health care provider can help you.
  • Aim for an A1C below 7%. The A1C test measures your average blood glucose (sugar) over the past 2 to 3 months.
  • Lower your blood pressure to less than 140/80 mmHg.
  • Get your LDL cholesterol below 100 mg/dl.
  • Talk to your health care provider about taking aspirin or other antiplatelet medicines. These medicines have been shown to reduce heart attacks and strokes in people with PAD.

Studies have found that exercise, such as walking, can be used both to treat PAD and to prevent it. Medications may help relieve symptoms.

In some cases, surgical procedures are used to treat PAD:

  • Angioplasty, also called balloon angioplasty: a procedure in which a small tube with a balloon attached is inserted and threaded into an artery; then the balloon is inflated, opening the narrowed artery. A wire tube, called a stent, may be left in place to help keep the artery open.
  • Artery bypass graft: a procedure in which a blood vessel is taken from another part of the body and is attached to bypass a blocked artery
  • Last Reviewed: June 7, 2013
  • Last Edited: April 30, 2014

Articles from Diabetes Forecast® magazine:

Diabetes Forecast