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Peripheral arterial disease (PAD) can be just as serious as a heart attack or a stroke, but the signs and symptoms are much less well known. However, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF), about one in five people over the age of 60 in the UK has PAD to some degree. Here’s a look at what it is and the common symptoms to watch out for. 

PAD is a condition caused by a build-up of fatty deposits in the arteries, which restricts the blood flow to the leg muscles. It may also be known as peripheral vascular disease. PAD often has no symptoms, but if left untreated it can raise the risk of a heart attack, and may lead to gangrene, which can result in the need to amputate a limb.  

If there are symptoms, it is most usually a noticeable pain in the legs when walking. This will usually subside after a few minutes, or when the person is at rest. 

Patrick Coughlin, a consultant vascular surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, writes: The most common symptom is intermittent claudication – it comes from the Latin word claudicare, meaning to limp. It is usually pain in the leg muscles when walking or exercising – so you walk a certain distance then experience cramp-like pain.”

He adds: “A bit like angina when you have coronary heart disease, the pain happens because the muscle isn’t getting enough blood to supply the oxygen and nutrients it needs. Once the muscle has rested, you can walk a similar distance again.”

However, PAD also sometimes causes other symptoms. Men may notice that they are experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED), which is the inability to get or keep an erection long enough for a satisfactory sexual experience. This can happen because the body is unable to supply enough blood to the genital area. 

Some men are understandably reluctant to discuss sexual problems with a doctor, but it’s important to rule out more serious underlying health problems. 

Other symptoms, which can affect both sexes, include hair loss on the legs and feet, numbness and weakness of the legs, muscle shrinkage, ulcers on the feet and legs which do not heal, paler or bluish skin tone on the legs, and brittle slow-growing toenails. 

What causes PAD?

PAD is more common in people over the age of 60, and smoking is considered to be one of the most significant risk factors. People with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 1 or type 2 diabetes are also more at risk of PAD. These factors can also be a cause of ED.

With timely treatment, it is possible to recover from PAD. Doctors may recommend lifestyle changes such as losing weight, taking more exercise, stopping smoking, and reducing alcohol intake. In some cases, this may be combined with medication and surgery. 

If PAD is causing ED, then it’s important to address any underlying causes. ED can also be treated with medications such as Viagra and Eroxon Stimgel.