Peripheral Artery Disease and Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: March 2024

Our bodies contain intricate networks of veins and arteries, which we need for the smooth circulation of blood. Sometimes these networks develop roadblocks, leading to conditions like peripheral artery disease (PAD) and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).1

PAD and DVT are 2 different types of vascular disease. Vascular disease refers to a wide range of conditions that affect the blood vessels and blood flow throughout the body.1

What is peripheral artery disease?

PAD is the most common type of vascular disease. Experts estimate that about 8 to 12 million Americans have PAD. Because the condition often goes undiagnosed, this number is probably higher.1,2

PAD occurs when there is a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. Our arteries transport oxygen-rich blood away from the heart. As plaque builds up over time, the arteries narrow and blood supply to the body decreases.1,2

Plaque buildup especially restricts blood flow to the extremities (legs, feet, arms, hands). PAD mostly affects the arteries that supply blood to the legs and feet.1,2

Our bodies need the nutrients and oxygen that blood provides. If left untreated, PAD can cause an affected limb to not get the blood supply it needs. This can result in tissue death (gangrene), which may require amputation of the affected limb.2

What is deep vein thrombosis?

DVT is a blood clot that forms in a deep vein. Our veins carry oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart. DVT usually occurs in the legs but also can occur in other parts of the body.1,3,4

DVT can be very serious. If a blood clot in a vein breaks loose, it can travel through the bloodstream and get stuck in the lungs, blocking blood flow. When this happens, it is called pulmonary embolism (PE).1,3,4

More than 200,000 people develop DVT in the United States every year. About 1 in 4 of those cases result in a PE. When DVT and PE happen together, it is called venous thromboembolism (VTE). VTEs are the third most common cause of death, after heart attack and stroke.3,4

Similarities and differences

While both PAD and DVT involve blood vessels, they affect different types:1-3

  • PAD involves plaque buildup in the arteries
  • DVT involves the formation of blood clots within veins

Despite these differences, both conditions can lead to serious related health problems (complications) if left untreated. PAD and DVT also share some risk factors, such as:1-3

  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • High blood pressure

It is crucial to adopt healthy lifestyle habits to prevent these types of vascular diseases.1-3

Causes and risk factors

PAD and DVT share similar causes and risk factors. Genetics and lifestyle habits both play a role in shaping vascular health.1-4

Peripheral artery disease

Several factors can increase the risk of developing PAD. The major risk factors are:2

  • Age over 60
  • Family history of vascular disease
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • A sedentary lifestyle

Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating a balanced diet, and engaging in regular physical activity, can greatly reduce the risk of developing PAD.2

Deep vein thrombosis

There are many risk factors for DVT, including:3,4

  • Having damage to a vein caused by surgery, injury, or infection
  • Being over 60 years old
  • Taking certain drugs, such as birth control pills or drugs that replace hormones
  • Being pregnant
  • Being a smoker
  • Having cancer
  • Being overweight
  • Having inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Having a genetic blood clotting disorder
  • Having had a previous DVT or a family history of DVT
  • Having a long period of immobility

Inactivity is a major risk factor for DVT. When you do not use your leg muscles, the blood flow in your legs decreases. This increases your risk of DVT. People who have just had surgery, are on bed rest, or travel on long flights are more likely to develop DVT.3,4

DVT can occur even if you have no risk factors. Knowing the symptoms of DVT is important to help you avoid complications such as PE.3

Symptoms

Certain symptoms serve as signals for peripheral artery disease and deep vein thrombosis. While some symptoms of the 2 conditions are the same, there are also some differences.1-4

Peripheral artery disease

The symptoms of PAD include:1,2

  • Leg pain
  • Cramping
  • Fatigue during physical activity
  • Coldness and numbness in the legs or feet
  • Slower hair and nail growth on the affected limb
  • Poor wound healing

Early detection of PAD is crucial. Untreated PAD may lead to severe complications, including infections and tissue damage.1,2

Deep vein thrombosis

DVT can occur with no symptoms at all. In fact, only about half of people with DVT experience symptoms. Symptoms can include:1,3,4

  • Leg pain, cramping, or soreness
  • Leg swelling
  • A feeling of warmth in the leg
  • Redness or other changes to the skin color of the leg

Diagnosis

These 2 conditions are diagnosed in very similar ways. Certain diagnostic tests can be used for each to get a clear picture of how severe the condition is.2,3

Peripheral artery disease

Diagnosing PAD involves a combination of medical history, physical exam, and special tests. For example, ankle-brachial index (ABI) is a common noninvasive test used to look for PAD. It measures blood pressure in the ankles and arms to determine how well blood is circulating.2

Doppler ultrasound and angiography may be used for more detailed imaging.2

Deep vein thrombosis

Doctors diagnose DVT with the help of the following tests:3

  • D-dimer – a blood test that measures a piece of a protein (D-dimer) that your body makes when a blood clot dissolves
  • Coagulation blood tests – blood tests that provide information about your body’s ability to clot
  • Ultrasound of the veins in your legs

If you have an ultrasound that does not show DVT, your doctor may order a repeat ultrasound in 1 to 2 weeks or repeat blood tests if they suspect the condition.3

Treatment

When it comes to treatment, there are several possible ways to restore vascular health. The overall outlook for PAD and DVT is good if the conditions are caught early. The further along they are, the harder these conditions are to treat.1

Peripheral artery disease

Treatment for PAD aims to manage symptoms, slow disease progression, and reduce the risk of complications. Lifestyle changes, such as adopting a heart-healthy diet and exercise regimen, are fundamental. Medicines to control cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar may be prescribed.2

In severe cases, surgeries like angioplasty or bypass surgery may be necessary to restore proper blood flow.2

Deep vein thrombosis

Treatment for DVT includes drugs that can break down or prevent blood clots (anticoagulation drugs). Treatment with these drugs usually lasts 3 to 6 months. If the DVT occurs more than once, 12 months of treatment may be needed. People with cancer and DVT need long-term treatment.3

While many people recover from DVT with no complications, they have a high risk of developing another DVT. One-third of people with DVT have another DVT within 10 years.3,5

How can these conditions be prevented?

Prevention is key for both DVT and PAD. These lifestyle changes can help with prevention:1-3

  • Keep moving. This is especially important if you have had surgery or are on bed rest. Try to move as early and as often as you can. If you are traveling, take breaks, stand, and stretch your legs.
  • Exercise. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking is a major risk factor for many diseases, including vascular diseases like PAD and DVT.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Your doctor can help you develop a diet and exercise plan to reach and stay at a weight that is healthy for you.

If you notice symptoms of PAD or DVT, call your doctor so treatment can be started right away.

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Treatment results and side effects can vary from person to person. This treatment information is not meant to replace professional medical advice. Talk to your doctor about what to expect before starting and while taking any treatment.