Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Peripheral vascular disease

7-minute read

What is peripheral vascular disease?

Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is also known as 'peripheral artery disease' (PAD). It usually refers to narrowing of the arteries leading to your legs and feet.

What are the symptoms of peripheral vascular disease?

The most common symptom of PVD is painful cramping in your leg muscles. This is triggered by physical activity, such as walking or climbing stairs.

The pain usually develops in your calves (lower leg). Sometimes your thigh or buttock muscles can be affected. It can range from mild to severe.

The pain will usually go away after 5 to 10 minutes when you rest your legs. This pattern of symptoms is known as 'intermittent claudication'. (Claudication is a Latin term that loosely translates as 'limping'.)

Other signs of PVD may include the following:

  • Coldness in your lower legs or feet.
  • Changing skin colour on your legs, turning pale when raised and then red when sitting.

If the blockage is more serious, you may have pain in your legs when resting. The pain may be severe and burning. It often happens at night or when your feet are elevated. The pain may get better if you dangle your legs over the edge of your bed.

You may also have:

  • hair loss on your legs and feet
  • shiny, pale, dry skin on your legs
  • bluish coloured feet
  • brittle, slow-growing toenails
  • numbness or weakness in your legs
  • wasting of the muscles in your legs
  • wounds and ulcers (open sores) on your feet and legs, which don’t heal

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes peripheral vascular disease?

PVD is caused by a build-up of atheroma (fatty deposits on the walls of your arteries). This makes the arteries narrower. It restricts the flow of blood to the part of the body affected. This process is called 'atherosclerosis'.

There are many factors that can contribute to the narrowing of your arteries. These include:

If you have PVD, you also have a greater risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.

When should I see my doctor?

Many people mistakenly think that recurring episodes of leg pain are part of growing older. But this is not true. There is no reason why a healthy person should experience leg pain.

If you do have episodes of leg pain, that comes on when walking and gets better when you rest, see your doctor.

When should I get urgent medical advice?

Some symptoms suggest that the supply of blood to your legs has become severely restricted and you may need to see a doctor urgently. These include:

  • sudden onset of foot pain, paleness or coldness over hours or days
  • being unable to move the muscles in your affected leg
  • numbness in your affected leg
  • having your toes suddenly turn blue

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is peripheral vascular disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine your legs. They will feel for pulses in your legs as part of the examination.

Your doctor may compare the blood pressure in your legs to the blood pressure in your arms by using a test called the ankle brachial index (ABI).

They may also recommend some tests. These may include:

  • an ultrasound scan to look at the blood flow in your legs
  • an angiogram (where dye is injected into your blood vessels so the doctor can watch your blood flow using various imaging techniques)
  • blood tests

Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist.

How is peripheral vascular disease treated?

Lifestyle changes

Making lifestyle changes can improve symptoms. They can also reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease and stroke.

Recommended lifestyle and self-care measures include:

Walking exercise programs help to reduce the severity and frequency of your PVD symptoms.

At the same time, exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease. Ask your doctor about the best way to exercise.


Taking medicines can address the underlying cause of PVD and reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Your doctor may recommend you take:


One possible procedure is angioplasty and stenting to unblock your artery and keep it open.

Surgery may be recommended as a last resort in severe cases.

This may involve a bypass graft if the blood flow in your leg is blocked

Can peripheral vascular disease be prevented?

If you smoke, you should quit. This will reduce your risk of PVD.

You can also help to prevent PVD by making sure your diabetes is controlled and keeping your blood pressure and blood cholesterol at healthy levels.

Make healthy food choices and exercise regularly, for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week.

If you are overweight, losing even a small about of weight will help to reduce your risk of PVD.

Severe cases of PVD can lead to ‘chronic limb ischemia’ (lacking blood supply). This is when blood flow to your limb is severely restricted. It is very serious.

Males with PVD may develop impotence (erectile dysfunction). They may have difficulty being able to obtain or keep an erection.

Resources and support

Heart Foundation has information and resources on conditions affecting your heart and blood vessels.

For help quitting smoking, visit Quit or call the Quitline on 13 7848.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222. A registered nurse is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Peripheral vascular disease - Better Health Channel

Peripheral vascular disease is the reduced circulation of blood to a body part (other than the brain or heart).

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Foot Care

Limbs 4 Life is the recognized that amputees needed an organisation that provided up-to-date information and formalized peer support.

Read more on Limbs 4 Life website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Leg ulcers

Leg ulcers are extremely common and occur more frequently in elderly people. In countries with developed health systems, 1-3% of the total health budget is spent on treating leg ulcers.

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

What we’re doing about cardiovascular conditions | Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care

Cardiovascular conditions affect the heart and blood vessels and are a leading cause of death in Australia. Over 1 million Australians are living with heart disease, stroke or vascular conditions. Find out what we’re doing about these conditions.

Read more on Department of Health and Aged Care website

Homocysteine | Pathology Tests Explained

This test determines the level of homocysteine in the blood. Homocysteine is a sulphur-containing amino acid that is normally present in very small amounts i

Read more on Pathology Tests Explained website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Chilblains

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Leg ache - causes and symptoms -

Leg ache or leg pain is a symptom with many possible causes, that may involve muscles, nerves or blood vessels.

Read more on myDr website

Feet: checklist for foot health -

Foot problems such as smelly feet, athlete's foot, plantar warts, corns and infected toenails can all be alleviated through good foot care. Use this checklist of quick questions to check the health of your feet. 

Read more on myDr website

Coxibs and arthritis pain and inflammation -

COX-2 inhibitors (coxibs) are a type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). They can help relieve pain and inflammation in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Read more on myDr website

MTHFR mutation | Pathology Tests Explained

The methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) gene contains the DNA code to produce the MTHFR enzyme.The MTHFR enzyme metabolises one for

Read more on Pathology Tests Explained website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Queensland Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.