Symptoms and causes

While many people with peripheral artery disease have mild or no symptoms, some people have leg pain when walking (claudication).

Claudication symptoms include muscle pain or cramping in your legs or arms that's triggered by activity, such as walking, but disappears after a few minutes of rest. The location of the pain depends on the location of the clogged or narrowed artery. Calf pain is the most common location.

The severity of claudication varies widely, from mild discomfort to debilitating pain. Severe claudication can make it hard for you to walk or do other types of physical activity.

Peripheral artery disease is often caused by atherosclerosis. In atherosclerosis, fatty deposits (plaques) build up in your artery walls and reduce blood flow.

Although the heart is usually the focus of discussion of atherosclerosis, this disease can and usually does affect arteries throughout your body. When it occurs in the arteries supplying blood to your limbs, it causes peripheral artery disease.

Less commonly, the cause of peripheral artery disease may be blood vessel inflammation, injury to your limbs, unusual anatomy of your ligaments or muscles, or radiation exposure.

Factors that increase your risk of developing peripheral artery disease include:

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity (a body mass index over 30)
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Increasing age, especially after reaching 50 years of age
  • A family history of peripheral artery disease, heart disease or stroke
  • High levels of homocysteine, a protein component that helps build and maintain tissue

People who smoke or have diabetes have the greatest risk of developing peripheral artery disease due to reduced blood flow.

If your peripheral artery disease is caused by a buildup of plaques in your blood vessels (atherosclerosis), you're also at risk of developing:

  • Critical limb ischemia. This condition begins as open sores that don't heal, an injury, or an infection of your feet or legs. Critical limb ischemia occurs when such injuries or infections progress and can cause tissue death (gangrene), sometimes requiring amputation of the affected limb.
  • Stroke and heart attack. The atherosclerosis that causes the signs and symptoms of peripheral artery disease isn't limited to your legs. Fat deposits also build up in arteries supplying your heart and brain.