Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

In peripheral arterial disease (previously called peripheral vascular disease), not enough blood flows to the legs. The condition usually is caused by fatty deposits called plaques that build up along the walls of blood vessels. This buildup shrinks the size of the passageway and reduces the amount of blood that can flow through. This is a condition called atherosclerosis.

The risk factors for getting peripheral arterial disease are similar to the risk factors for coronary heart disease, and include:

  • Smoking cigarettes or using other forms of tobacco (such as snuff and chew)

  • An abnormally high level of cholesterol (hypercholesterolemia)

  • An abnormally low level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, the good cholesterol)

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)

  • Diabetes

  • Family history of cardiovascular disease

  • Obesity

  • Physical inactivity (too little regular exercise)

  • Kidney disease

  • Race (blacks appear to have a higher risk of developing the disease)

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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