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Vascular Surgeon Julie Duke, MD

Health and Wellness

Five things you should know about peripheral artery disease (PAD)

Blockages in your leg arteries are often the first evidence of a major health problem. We talked with Vascular Surgeon Julie Duke, MD, RPVI, to learn more. 

  • July 18, 2021
  • By Staff Writer

Clogged arteries are a major health risk, no matter where in your body they are. In your chest, an artery blocked by plaque can dramatically raise your risk of a heart attack. In your neck, the same condition can lead to a stroke.

What’s not so well known is that the arteries carrying blood to other parts of your body – the body’s “peripheral arteries” – can also get clogged. This, too, can be a serious condition, called peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD affects 6.5 million Americans over 40, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most common type of PAD affects the arteries that supply blood to the legs.

We caught up with Vascular Surgeon Julie Duke, MD, RPVI about the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of PAD.

PAD is a serious condition that should be diagnosed promptly so doctors can reduce your risk as quickly as possible.

PAD may be your first warning sign of a serious health problem. Atherosclerosis—or clogging—in the peripheral arteries is dangerous. If you have atherosclerosis in your legs, it’s almost certainly occurring elsewhere in the body. That’s why all patients with PAD, regardless of whether leg pain is present, are at increased short-term risk of a heart attack or a stroke.

This risk means that one in five people with PAD, if left undiagnosed and untreated, will suffer a heart attack, stroke, or death within five years. Untreated PAD can have other serious consequences, including leg muscle pain, discomfort during exercise, and loss of mobility and independence. In rare cases, both blockages and blood clots in the arteries may lead to pain at rest, foot skin ulcers, or amputation. The good news is that these health problems can almost always be prevented.

“It is important to have a comprehensive health care evaluation in a patient with PAD early to help prevent complications of arterial disease throughout the body. In patients with advanced PAD, it can be critical to intervene early to prevent foot ulceration and possible amputation,” Duke said. 

Some people are more likely than others to suffer from PAD.

PAD is extremely common and affects as many as 5 percent of all adults and 20 percent of people over age 65. You’re more likely to develop PAD if you are 50 years old or older; now smoke or have ever smoked; have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol; or have a parent or sibling diagnosed with PAD. People who previously suffered a heart attack or stroke are more likely to have PAD. Also, African Americans are twice as likely to develop PAD than others with identical risk factors.

You may not know you have PAD.

Some people with PAD experience no symptoms at all. Many others notice that they can’t walk as far or fast as they used to without experiencing leg muscle pain or cramping—which is called claudication. Still, many affected people may chalk this pain up to ordinary aging or lack of exercise.

Vascular medicine specialists and other health professionals should evaluate people with hallmark warning signs—including leg pain or cramping as well as sores or wounds on the feet that don’t heal within a month of injury.

Learn more about M Health Fairview’s peripheral artery disease diagnosis and treatment.

PAD can be treated—and the treatment is easy, safe, inexpensive, and most often, noninvasive.     

Over the last 25 years, groundbreaking research conducted by M Health Fairview clinicians and researchers in collaboration with national colleagues have proven that very specific exercise routines can be as effective in the treatment of claudication pain as inserting a balloon into the affected artery to open up blockages.

This procedure is sometimes necessary and can be helpful, but exercise programs can be equally or even more effective than any other treatment. Medications, smoking cessation, and increased patient knowledge are all essential components of care that can quickly lower the risk of heart attack, stroke, amputation, and death. 

Learn more about M Health Fairview’s vascular medicine program.

M Health Fairview is uniquely positioned to diagnose and treat the problem.

M Health Fairview offers a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, and cost-effective clinical approach to all vascular care. Our vascular medicine specialists, surgeons, radiologists, and rehabilitation experts collaborate as one team to treat the entire disease process and ensure patients enjoy the best possible outcomes. Our dedicated peripheral artery disease rehabilitation program is fully integrated into our healthcare system for ease of access for our patients.

“We have a wide array of surgeons with different expertise to be able to provide excellent comprehensive vascular care in a timely fashion,” Duke said. “We offer both open and endovascular options to treat peripheral vascular disease as well as the option to monitor patients closely in the outpatient setting with nonoperative management.”