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September 2019

Leg Pain: Arthritis or Peripheral Artery Disease?

If you suffer from leg pain while walking, you may blame arthritis. But if the problem is peripheral artery disease (PAD), it can have serious consequences.    

Older woman sitting on stool, looking at her left calf 

When fatty deposits (plaque) build up in your body’s arteries, the condition is called atherosclerosis. In PAD, these fatty deposits build up in the arteries that carry blood to your legs. Untreated, PAD can lead to gangrene and even leg amputation. It’s also a warning sign that arteries in the heart and brain may be blocked, increasing your chances for heart attack and stroke. 

Signs of PAD

PAD starts slowly and may go unnoticed. Discomfort can occur in the affected legs, thighs, calves, hips, buttocks, or feet. In addition to pain, other common sensations are heaviness, numbness, or aching in the leg muscles. Rest usually helps. Other symptoms include:

  • Pale or bluish skin

  • Lack of leg hair or toenail growth

  • Sores on toes, feet, or legs that heal slowly or not at all  

See your healthcare provider if you have any of these symptoms. PAD can be diagnosed with a simple test called an ankle-brachial index. It measures blood flow by comparing blood pressure in your arms with blood pressure in your legs.

Arthritis affects joints

Because PAD is such a serious and progressive disease, it’s important to know the difference between pain caused by arthritis and symptoms that mean blocked blood flow.   

Arthritis leg pain generally is linked with specific joints—either feet, knees, or hips. When cartilage around the joint breaks down, pain, stiffness, and swelling can result. Arthritic joints may also be warm and have limited movement.     

If joint pain lasts beyond 3 days, see a healthcare provider. Also get medical attention for:

  • Joint pain that interferes with daily activities

  • A swollen joint

  • A joint that’s hot to the touch

  • Difficulty moving the joint

  • A fever with the joint pain

  • Unintentional weight loss

While arthritis usually causes noticeable discomfort, PAD may not cause symptoms.  Check with your provider about PAD testing if you’re older than 70, or older than 50 with a history of smoking or diabetes. People younger than 50 with diabetes and other risk factors for atherosclerosis should also talk with a healthcare provider about their risk for PAD. 

Online Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 3/1/2019
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