Learn more about peripheral vascular disease

If you feel pain in your legs after walking only a block or two, it may be due to peri­pheral vascular disease. Surprisingly, more exercise is part of the treatment and it can bring real relief. We'll teach you more.

Learn more about peripheral vascular disease

Learn what's happening

  • Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) occurs when the arteries in the "periphery" of your body (typically your legs) become narrowed or blocked by the buildup of a fatty substance called plaque.
  • The blockage usually develops over many years because of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which is the same problem that gives rise to coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
  • The risk factors for all of these illnesses are similar: smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and a sedentary lifestyle.
  • When blockages occur in your leg arteries, not enough oxygen-rich blood can get through the vessels to replenish your muscles. The resulting pain when you walk (which is relieved when you stop) is termed intermittent claudication.
  • An MRI or an angiogram will probably show blockages within your arteries. As the blockages progressively worsen, you may feel pain after walking only a short distance or even when you're at rest. Your feet may develop sores, and tissue may then die off, a dangerous condition called gangrene.

Take the first steps

These are the first things you should focus on:

  • Daily exercise to build endurance and blood flow.
  • Lifestyle changes. You should try to stop smoking, lose weight, and follow a heart-healthy diet.
  • Using aspirin or prescription medications for circulation.

Here are some more specific pointers:

  • Find a podiatrist (a foot-care specialist) to help prevent PVD-related infections. Inspect your feet daily for cracks, sores, or calluses. If an infection develops, a prescription ointment called becaplermin may promote healing. Take note: if left untreated, an infection can lead to gangrene, which is very serious.
  • Consider natural therapies. In some European countries, the herb ginkgo biloba (120 milligrams daily) is medically approved for "circulatory disorders" like claudication. Vitamin E (400 IU a day) and the amino acid arginine (1,000 milligrams twice a day) may also promote blood vessel health. Let your doctor know of any remedies you're taking, as some can interfere with medications or surgery.
  • If pain keeps you up at night, elevate the head of the bed. Elevate the bed 10 to 15 centimetres (four to six inches) to increase blood flow to the legs.
  • If pain is sudden and severe or the leg becomes cold or blue, seek help immediately. It could be a blood clot requiring immediate intervention, such as an injection of a clot-dissolving drug.

Peripheral vascular disease can be fought by making lifestyle changes. And as with most things, the sooner you make the change the better. Use this guide as a starting point and be sure to speak with your doctor.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
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