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

What causes peripheral vascular disease?

4-minute read

Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is usually caused by a build-up of fatty deposits on the walls of the arteries inside the legs. The fatty deposits, called 'atheroma', are made up of cholesterol and other waste substances.

The build-up of atheroma on the walls of the arteries makes the arteries narrower and restricts the flow of blood to the legs. This process is called 'atherosclerosis'.

People with PVD can experience painful cramps in their leg muscles during physical activity because the muscles are not receiving the blood supply that they need.

Like all tissue in your body, the muscles in your legs need a constant supply of blood to function properly. When you are using your leg muscles, the demand for blood increases tenfold. But if the arteries in your legs are blocked, the supply of available blood cannot meet the demand.

This shortfall between supply and demand causes your muscles to experience painful cramps, which only get better after you rest your legs.

Risk factors for PVD

Over time as you get older, your arteries naturally begin to harden and get narrower, which can lead to atherosclerosis and then PVD.

However, there are many factors that can dangerously speed up this process. These are described below.

Smoking

The single most important risk factor for PVD is smoking. Smoking can damage the walls of your arteries. Tiny blood cells, known as 'platelets', will then collect at the site of the damage to try to repair it. This can cause your arteries to narrow.

It is estimated that smokers are six times more likely to develop PVD than non-smokers and more than 80% of people who develop PVD are current or former smokers.

Diabetes

If you have poorly controlled type 1 or type 2 diabetes, the excess glucose in your blood can damage your arteries.

People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop PVD, and having a combination of poorly controlled diabetes and PVD is a major risk factor for amputation. People with diabetes and PVD are 15 times more likely to need an amputation than people with PVD who do not have diabetes.

High-fat diets and cholesterol

Cholesterol is a type of fat that is essential for the body to function. Cholesterol helps to produce hormones, to make up cell membranes (the walls that protect individual cells) and to protect nerve endings.

Cholesterol cannot travel around the body on its own because it does not dissolve in water. Instead, it is carried in your blood by molecules called 'lipoproteins'.

The two main lipoproteins are LDL and HDL:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is the main cholesterol transporter and carries cholesterol from your liver to the cells that need it. If there is too much cholesterol for the cells to use, this can cause a harmful build-up in your blood and lead to atherosclerosis. For this reason, LDL cholesterol is known as 'bad cholesterol', and lower levels are better for your health.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) carries cholesterol away from the cells and back to the liver, where it is either broken down or passed from the body as a waste product. For this reason, it is referred to as 'good cholesterol', and higher levels are better for your health.

Most of the cholesterol that your body needs is made by your liver. However, if you eat foods that are high in saturated fat, the fat is broken down into LDL ('bad cholesterol').

Blood cholesterol is measured in units called millimoles per litre of blood, often shortened to mmol/L. It is estimated that the risk of developing PVD increases by 10% for each 0.25 mmol/L rise in your cholesterol levels.

High blood pressure

Your arteries are designed to pump blood at a certain pressure, and if blood pressure is very high (known as 'hypertension'), the walls of the arteries can become damaged. High blood pressure can be caused by:

Last reviewed: January 2018

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Peripheral vascular disease

Peripheral vascular disease is the reduced circulation of blood to a body part other than the brain or heart. It is caused by a narrowed or blocked blood vessel. The main cause is atherosclerosis, which is the build-up of fatty deposits that narrow a blood vessel, usually an artery. The narrowed blood vessel reduces the circulation of blood to the associated body part.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Peripheral arterial disease (arteriosclerosis) information | myVMC

Peripheral arterial disease is arteriosclerosis or damage to the blood vessels of the legs and feet. Blood flow is restricted and nerve damage may occur.

Read more on myVMC – Virtual Medical Centre website

Raynaud's phenomenon - Better Health Channel

Raynaud's phenomenon can be a sign of a more serious underlying condition, so see your doctor if you experience it.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Peripheral arterial disease - myDr.com.au

Peripheral arterial disease refers to a narrowing of the blood vessels in the legs. Find out about the symptoms, risk factors, tests and treatment.

Read more on myDr 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 Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo