Peripheral vascular disease, also known as peripheral arterial disease (PAD), is a blockage in the arteries connected to your legs and feet. This form of cardiovascular disease goes beyond the heart, but the vascular system is all connected.

When people hear “vascular disease,” they typically think of coronary artery disease, or heart disease. But they’re forgetting that there are other major arteries in the legs, feet and other limbs that can become blocked over time, cutting off circulation to limbs and causing PAD. This also puts people at risk for heart disease and stroke, as PAD can serve as a warning for clogged arteries elsewhere in the body.

Just like coronary arterial disease, peripheral vascular problems in the limbs arise due to poor diet, lack of exercise and other unhealthy lifestyles choices that affect your health, such as smoking. It’s common among seniors 70 and older, but depending on diet and other risk factors, people in their 30s, 40s and 50s can also develop PAD. In the United States, 8-12 million people have PAD.

Dr. Jed Peterson
Dr. Jed Peterson, Interventional Radiologist

“When people consume too many foods that are high in sugar and fat and don’t get enough exercise, it can damage their red blood cells and lead to a blockage in arteries in their limbs,” says Dr. Jed Peterson, an interventional radiologist with Adventist Health’s Northwest Regional Heart & Vascular. “People living with obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions are at risk for PAD as well as heart disease. That’s because cardiovascular diseases are caused by clogged arteries, low oxygen levels in the blood and poor circulation that also increases risks for bacterial infections.”

The vascular system runs throughout the body, from your toes to your heart to your brain. That’s why PAD often serves as a warning for heart disease and increases the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Preventing peripheral vascular issues and amputation

Dr. Peterson stresses that people have the opportunity to improve their health and make lifestyle choices that keep their arteries clear and healthy. “The best way to improve circulation is to improve your diet, exercise regularly and keep your cholesterol and triglycerides at optimal levels.”

A simple lipid test, which is just a fancy way of saying blood test, is the best way to test cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) should stay below 190, as it can build up in the arteries, causing blood flow issues and vascular problems. HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) actually fights against both vascular and heart disease. Triglycerides, which are the fats in your blood stream that energize the body, should stay below 150. Eating a nutritious diet low in sugars and fats is the best way to prevent high triglycerides, which have been linked to heart disease and vascular problems.

healthy eating for vascular health
Eating more fruits and veggies can improve vascular health

5 tips to improve vascular health

  1. Switch to whole grains
  2. Eat more fruits and vegetables
  3. Choose low-fat dairy options
  4. Eat more of the foods that fight inflammation
  5. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily – low impact activities such as walking or swimming can be a great option for those unable to participate in more strenuous exercise

Symptoms of vascular problems and PAD

The progression of PAD and other cardiovascular diseases can be fairly silent and hard to detect because the arteries slowly clog due to an increase in sugars and fats in the blood stream.

The most common symptom of PAD is painful muscle cramping in the lower half of the body. This pain is caused by the blockage—blood can’t flow freely to the muscles being used. Symptoms for PAD include:

  • Pain in the muscles, rather than the joints
  • Numbness or cooling in the feet, legs or limbs
  • Asymmetry in body temperature, indicative of poor circulation to your limbs
  • Sores that won’t heal
  • Resting foot pain
  • Gangrene

Improving circulation and avoiding amputation

While PAD can be prevented or reversed over time through diet and exercise, sometimes amputation must be considered or a team of specialists can intervene to save a limb.

Adventist Health has the only limb preservation team in Portland. The team consists of vascular specialists like Dr. Peterson, as well as orthopedic surgeons, a diabetologist, wound care experts and primary care doctors who work together to find a treatment to improve circulation for a patient, rather than amputate.

“We’ve see incredible advancements in technology in just the past couple of years that allow us to more easily locate a blockage in an artery and intervene to improve circulation to a damaged area,” says Peterson. “Through minimally invasive surgery, we revascularize the arteries and increase circulation to help save a patient’s leg or foot.”