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Peripheral vascular disease symptoms

The most common symptom of peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is painful cramping in your leg muscles triggered by physical activity such as walking or climbing the stairs.

The pain usually develops in your calves, but sometimes your hips or thigh muscles can be affected. It can range from mild to severe.

The pain will usually go away after 5-10 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 symptoms of PVD may include:

  • hair loss on your legs and feet
  • numbness or weakness in the legs
  • brittle, slow-growing toenails 
  • ulcers (open sores) on your feet and legs, which do not heal
  • changing skin colour on your legs, turning pale or bluish
  • shiny skin 
  • wasting of the muscles in your legs
  • you are unable to feel a pulse in your leg or the pulse feels much weaker than normal
  • men may develop impotence (erectile dysfunction).

When to seek medical advice

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 experience recurring episodes of leg pain, make an appointment with your doctor, especially if you are a smoker, a diabetic, or have high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol.

When to seek urgent medical advice

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

  • being unable to move the muscles in the affected leg
  • feeling a burning or prickling sensation in the affected leg
  • your toes suddenly turn blue
  • the skin on your toes or lower limbs becomes cold and numb, and turns reddish and then black or begins to swell and produce foul-smelling pus, causing severe pain.

Sources: myDr (Peripheral arterial disease), NHS Choices, UK (Symptoms of peripheral arterial disease)

Last reviewed: September 2015

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