Peripheral Artery Disease: A Hidden Problem in Women, from the Harvard Women's Health Watch

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Peripheral artery disease, which covers problems in the arteries supplying the legs, arms and most organs, is often overlooked or misdiagnosed in women. Harvard Women's Health Watch offers tips for identifying and treating this all-too-common and potentially debilitating condition.

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If ever a disease deserved a new name, peripheral artery disease is it. "Peripheral" smacks of something on the sidelines. Nothing could be further from the truth. Peripheral artery disease affects at least 12 million Americans, more than heart disease and stroke combined. It kills some, maims others, and makes life disagreeable or unbearable for countless more. The condition is often overlooked or misdiagnosed in women, according to the April 2012 Harvard Women's Health Watch.

Although peripheral artery disease usually affects the legs, it can also affect the arms. Symptoms include:

  • pain, cramping, or heaviness with exercise or movement that subsides with rest
  • painful, cold, numb, or tingling legs or hands
  • sores on the legs, feet, arms, or hands that don't heal.

Any of these symptoms warrant a closer look. Peripheral artery disease is generally diagnosed with a test called the ankle-brachial index, which compares blood pressure in the arm with blood pressure at the ankle.

Lifestyle changes are often the first step in fighting peripheral artery disease. Exercise can help open arteries and improve blood flow. Managing cholesterol and blood pressure, and not smoking, are also important. Some people with peripheral artery disease need to have bypass surgery or artery-opening angioplasty, which may include placing a stent to improve blood flow to the affected arm or leg.

Women tend to develop symptoms of peripheral artery disease in their 60s and 70s—a decade later than men. By then, women may have other conditions like arthritis or nerve damage that can mask the symptoms and delay diagnosis until the disease is fairly far advanced. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, ask your doctor if you should have a workup for peripheral artery disease. Early action can make you feel better, and keep your arms and legs functioning.

Read the full-length article: "Peripheral artery disease"

Also in this issue:

  • How often should women have their bone mineral density checked?
  • Emergency contraceptive pill helps treat fibroids
  • Spinal manipulation and exercise trump drugs for neck pain
  • Are generic drugs the same as brand-name drugs?

The Harvard Women's Health Watch is available from Harvard Health Publications, the publishing division of Harvard Medical School, for $29 per year. Subscribe at or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).

Media: Contact Natalie Ramm at hhpmedia(at)hms(dot)harvard(dot)edu for a complimentary copy of the newsletter, or to receive our press releases directly.

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Natalie Ramm
Harvard Health Publications
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