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Peripheral Arterial Disease – What You Should Know About Your Body’s Plumbing

Plumbers think they’re so great.

Well, okay. Maybe plumbers are pretty great. They have serious clog-removing skills, can tighten up a valve like nobody’s business, and are even sometimes pretty good at telling jokes. In fact, even plumbers aside, plumbing itself (of the indoor variety) is probably one of the top ten inventions we aren’t grateful for enough. (If it helps, think of: ‘winter’ and ‘outhouse’ together.)

But the body says to all of this modern plumbing stuff, “Phhft.” Perhaps not literally (or perhaps indeed literally, depending on your fiber intake), but figuratively your body declares, “I, or rather humans as a whole, or rather all mammals, or rather all animal life and plant life too, sort of, have been doing this whole plumbing thing a whole lot longer than you new-comers.” And the body is absolutely right. Veins? Genius. Arteries? Absolute works of art. Capillaries? Magical.

In short, your body’s blood-moving plumbing system is pretty darn great (even more so than plumbers). But even amazing, genius, magical works of art have problems. And sometimes, they can be pretty serious, like with peripheral arterial disease.

Peripheral arterial disease (or PAD to its friends, although, come to think of it, diseases don’t have many friends) is when plaque or other deposits build up on the insides of the arteries that take blood out to your legs and arms (your peripheries). This buildup hardens your blood vessels and restricts the flow of blood through your arteries, thus cutting down circulation. (Plaque buildup in arteries is also known as atherosclerosis—peripheral arterial disease is most often caused by atherosclerosis in the peripheral arteries.)

To help you visualize this, imagine a pipe coated with all sorts of gunk on the inside, like moldy clumps of hair and goops of shower gel, and then imagine a tubful of water trying to make its way through that stuff. It’s not going to flow easily. That’s what plumbers have to deal with. Gooped-up arteries (and no, that’s not really the medical term for it) are what you and your doctor have to deal with.

The problem becomes very serious when the hardened artery ruptures, forming a blood clot which then blocks the flow of blood entirely. This sort of blockage is what causes a heart attack if it happens in the heart, or a stroke if it happens in the brain. In fact, if you develop PAD, you’re two to six times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Not because the stress of PAD makes you have them, but because the state of the arteries in your peripheries is likely to be the same as the state of your arteries in your heart and brain. A blockage in your peripheral arteries can cause tissue death (gangrene) and may lead to amputation.