Peripheral Vascular Disease (PVD, Peripheral Artery Disease, Peripheral Arterial Disease, PAD)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI
    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Daniel Lee Kulick, MD, FACC, FSCAI

    Dr. Kulick received his undergraduate and medical degrees from the University of Southern California, School of Medicine. He performed his residency in internal medicine at the Harbor-University of California Los Angeles Medical Center and a fellowship in the section of cardiology at the Los Angeles County-University of Southern California Medical Center. He is board certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiology.

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What is peripheral vascular disease?

Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) refers to diseases of the blood vessels (arteries and veins) located outside the heart and brain. While there are many causes of peripheral vascular disease, doctors commonly use the term peripheral vascular disease to refer to peripheral artery disease (peripheral arterial disease, PAD), a condition that develops when the arteries that supply blood to the internal organs, arms, and legs become completely or partially blocked as a result of atherosclerosis.

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a gradual process whereby hard cholesterol substances (plaques) are deposited in the walls of the arteries. Cholesterol plaques cause hardening of the artery walls and narrowing of the inner channel (lumen) of the artery. The atherosclerosis process begins early in life (as early as teens in some people). When atherosclerosis is mild and the arteries are not substantially narrowed, atherosclerosis causes no symptoms. Therefore, many adults typically are unaware that their arteries are gradually accumulating cholesterol plaques. But when atherosclerosis becomes advanced with aging, it can cause critical narrowing of the arteries resulting in tissue ischemia (lack of blood and oxygen).

Arteries that are narrowed by advanced atherosclerosis can cause diseases in different organs. For example, advanced atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries (arteries that supply heart muscles) can lead to angina and heart attacks. Advanced atherosclerosis of the carotid and cerebral arteries (arteries that supply blood to the brain) can lead to strokes and transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). Advanced atherosclerosis in the lower extremities can lead to pain while walking or exercising (claudication), deficient wound healing, and/or leg ulcers.

Picture of carotid artery disease and plaque buildup.
Picture of Carotid Artery Disease and Plaque Buildup

Picture of a heart attack (myocardial infarction).
Picture of a Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction) - Buildup of Cholesterol Plaque and Blood Clot

Atherosclerosis is often generalized, meaning it affects arteries throughout the body. Therefore, patients with heart attacks are also more likely to develop strokes and peripheral vascular disease, and vice versa.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 11/3/2015
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