Peripheral vascular disease, also called PVD, refers to any disease or disorder of the circulatory system outside of the brain and heart. The term can include any disorder that affects any blood vessels. It is, though, often used as a synonym for peripheral artery disease.
PVD is a leading cause of disability among people over age 60, as well as those with diabetes. Up to 40% of the people with PVD don't have symptoms. Of those who do, many don't tell their health care providers.
People often think PVD is a normal part of aging and that nothing can be done about it. Others think the only solution is surgery. But surgery is only one of several effective treatments available. Treating PVD medically and with lifestyle changes is the best way to prevent it from getting worse and protect against complications. This is especially true for people who have high blood pressure (hypertension) or diabetes, those with high fats or lipids in their blood, and those who smoke.
PVD is the most common disease of the arteries. The build-up of fatty material inside the vessels, a condition called atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, is what causes it. The build up is a gradual process. Over time, the artery becomes blocked, narrowed, or weakened.
When a blockage occurs in the arteries of the heart, it's called coronary heart disease or coronary artery disease. Most often, atherosclerosis is thought of in terms of its effect on arteries of the heart and of the brain. But atherosclerosis can affect any other blood vessel throughout the body.
Blood vessels in the legs are the ones most often affected. Other arteries frequently affected include those that supply blood to the kidneys and those in the arms. When an artery is blocked or narrowed, the part of the body it supplies doesn't get enough oxygen. The condition is called ischemia. Ischemia can cause a variety of symptoms, depending on the organ or system that's affected.
Symptoms range from pain, cold feet, and bluish discoloration to stroke or gangrene. If the condition is not reversed, the affected body part is injured and eventually starts to die. It's important to find narrowed arteries before damage occurs.
The most common cause of PVD is peripheral artery disease, which is due to atherosclerosis. Fatty material builds up inside the arteries and mixes with calcium, scar tissue, and other substances. The mixture hardens slightly, forming plaques. These plaques block, narrow, or weaken the artery walls. Blood flowing through the arteries can be restricted or completely blocked.
Other causes of PVD include:
Only about 60% of the individuals with peripheral vascular disease have symptoms. Almost always, symptoms are caused by the leg muscles not getting enough blood. Whether you have symptoms depends partly on which artery is affected and to what extent blood flow is restricted.
The most common symptom of PVD in the legs is pain that comes and goes in one or both calves, thighs, or hips. The pain usually occurs while you are walking or climbing stairs and stops when you rest. It is usually a dull, cramping pain. It may also feel like a heaviness, tightness, or tiredness in the muscles of the legs.
When blood vessels in the legs are severely blocked, leg pain at night is typical.
Other symptoms of PVD include:
Having symptoms while at rest is a sign of more severe disease.
Risk factors for peripheral vascular disease include:
People who have coronary heart disease or a history of heart attack or stroke generally also have an increased frequency of having PVD.