Guide To The Causes And Risk Factors For Peripheral Vascular Disease

October 21, 2023

Peripheral vascular disease is a blood vessel disorder where the blood vessels outside the brain and heart become too narrow to allow for proper blood flow. It may produce symptoms such as claudication, hair loss on the legs, leg cramps, pale or blue legs and arms, weak pulses in the legs and feet, ulcers that won't heal on the legs, blue-colored toes, thick opaque toenails, muscle numbness, and heavy muscles. Peripheral vascular disease is diagnosed with the use of doppler ultrasound, angiography, CT angiography, ankle-brachial index, and magnetic resonance angiography. Treatment of peripheral vascular disease focuses on maintaining a normal activity level, preventing complications, and managing pain. Medication may be used to help the blood flow through the vessels more efficiently, and surgery may be needed in cases with severe artery blockages.

Cold Temperatures

An individual who is very sensitive to cold temperatures and is exposed to cold temperatures frequently may develop peripheral vascular disease. Peripheral vascular disease is characterized by a condition called atherosclerosis, and the plaque buildup in the arteries is what causes the general narrowing of the blood vessels because it leaves less space for the blood to move through. While this mechanism alone can cause a patient to develop peripheral vascular disease, other risk factors can cause even mild atherosclerosis in the limbs to progress into peripheral vascular disease. When the blood vessels come into contact with heat, they are known to dilate. When blood vessels come in contact with colder temperatures, their natural tendency is to constrict. Blood vessels that are already partially lined with plaques can become completely obstructed when they come into contact with very cold temperatures because the vessel constriction closes any space left for blood to pass through.

High Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is defined as the force of the blood against the blood vessel walls as it is moving through them. High blood pressure over an extended duration can cause the blood vessels to incur damage, and thus, an individual with high blood pressure is at an increased risk of developing peripheral vascular disease. When blood vessels incur damage to their lining or endothelium, they become more penetrable and allow cholesterol and other fatty substances to enter into the affected individual's bloodstream. The entry of the fatty substances into the blood vessel walls triggers the immune system, which sends an influx of immune components to the site where the fatty substances have entered the vessel walls and cause further collection and calcification of these substances. The plaque sticks to the endothelium throughout the blood vessels with the help of the inflammatory response of the body, ultimately resulting in atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis can move into the arteries that supply the limbs, which is how peripheral vascular disease develops.


Peripheral vascular disease is more likely to develop in an individual who experiences chronic high levels of stress. When an individual experiences stress, the body responds with what is known as the stress response. The stress reaction includes an influx of hormones that are meant to prepare the body for a fight or flight response. These hormones increase the individual's breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and cause glucose to be released back into the blood as a quick source of energy for the muscle cells. This mechanism works well when an individual is facing an actual source of danger. However, those exposed to stressful situations regularly have this stress response activated repetitively. After a long duration of constant stress responses in the individual's body, they become hypersensitive to mildly stressful situations. This mechanism causes long-term high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and an increased workload on the heart. All these factors increase an individual's risk of developing atherosclerosis and subsequent peripheral vascular disease.


A diabetes patient may develop peripheral vascular disease as a complication of their disease. Diabetes is a metabolic disease where an individual's body is unable to make enough insulin or their body is not responsive to the insulin their body does produce. Insulin is a hormone required for the body to regulate its blood sugar levels. Individuals who have diabetes require careful management with medication, diet, and exercise to keep their blood sugar at a safe and homeostatic level. Individuals who have poorly managed diabetes develop long-term hypertension and are at a higher risk of developing atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. High blood sugar is known to cause inflammation around the body, and this can exacerbate any mild damage that has already been inflicted on the arteries that supply the legs with oxygenated blood. More inflammation causes fatty substances to calcify and harden at a faster rate in the affected arteries. The plaque that builds up as a result of this mechanism is what makes a diabetes patient at an increased risk of developing peripheral vascular disease.

History Of Stroke

An individual who has a previous history of strokes has a higher risk of developing peripheral vascular disease as a result. The most common type of stroke called an ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot or embolus that becomes lodged in a vessel in the brain. Patients who had a stroke as the result of a blood clot are more likely to have blood that clots too much or inappropriately. Individuals who have hypercoagulable blood are more likely to develop blood clots that can cause peripheral vascular disease by becoming lodged in the arteries of the legs. Individuals who have a stroke due to an embolus are more likely to have atherosclerosis where a piece of plaque broke off from its original location and became lodged in an artery in the brain. Atherosclerosis occurs when fatty substances like cholesterol are allowed to enter the blood vessel walls and bloodstream in compromised or damaged areas of the endothelium. The fatty substances interact with the patient's immune system on the inner lining of the vessels, causing the substances to calcify and accumulate. When this process occurs in the legs or arms and causes narrowed arteries, it is considered peripheral vascular disease.

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