People who don’t have diabetes get peripheral vascular disease, but this condition seems to appear much more frequently in people with diabetes. In fact, peripheral vascular disease is 20 times more common in people with diabetes than in the general population.

What is peripheral vascular disease?

Peripheral vascular disease (PVD) is commonly called “poor circulation” and refers to blockage in the blood supply to the feet. A buildup of plaque inside the arteries that carry blood to the feet causes them to thicken and harden.

People without diabetes get this thickening and hardening of the arteries too, but these problems can happen sooner and appear to be more severe in people with diabetes.

How does diabetes cause PVD?

The fats in your blood, such as cholesterol and triglycerides, can build up on the walls of your arteries, thickening and hardening them. Diabetes often causes an increase in these two important fats, which can lead to the thickening process. This is why you need to have your cholesterol and triglyceride levels checked often.

If you have high cholesterol or high triglycerides, you may want to review your diet and try to lose some weight if you are overweight. Your doctor may put you on medication to help control high cholesterol and high triglycerides.

It is important to control these two fats because the thickening of the arteries that leads to PVD can also cause heart attacks and strokes. You have a greater risk for these illnesses when you have diabetes.

Other causes of PVD

There are other things that can put you at risk of developing peripheral vascular disease, such as:

Smoking. Smoking is clearly connected to developing vascular disease. When you smoke, the combustion products of tobacco are absorbed in the bloodstream. These chemicals stimulate the release of other chemicals, which injure the blood vessels and encourage the thickening and hardening of the arteries. Smoking also causes your blood vessels to constrict, which limits the amount of blood that can circulate.

Poor nutrition
Lack of exercise
Poor blood sugar control
High blood pressure

High blood pressure is mostly related to heart attacks, strokes, and kidney disease, but it also contributes to PVD. High blood pressure or hypertension damages the blood vessels all over your body and is associated with poor circulation.

If you have diabetes, you need to control your blood pressure as well as you can. We know that 35-75% of all diabetic complications result from a combination of high blood pressure and diabetes. You can help control your blood pressure by changing your meal plan and being physically active.

What kind of tests do you need for PVD?

Your doctor will check your feet and legs and feel for foot and leg pulses, located in the groin behind the knee, at the ankle, and on top of your foot. He may check your blood pressure in your ankle, arm, legs, and toes. (The arteries in toes don’t get stiff, so measuring blood pressure there may be more accurate).

Here are other tests your doctor may do to find out about your PVD:

An ultrasound scan test of your legs done with a Doppler machine. This test examines your legs and feet looking for blood clots and to assess your blood flow. It is a painless test.
A test to measure how much oxygen gets to the skin of your feet.
A special X rays or scan to check if you have an ulcer that does not heal. These tests give pictures of the blood flow from your thigh to your toes.

Are there any treatments for peripheral vascular disease?

Preventing vascular disease is much easier than treating it. The main preventive measures you can take are:

Quit smoking
Control blood pressure
Control blood sugar
Control cholesterol and triglycerides
Lose weight
Stay active

There are some medications your doctor may prescribe to treat peripheral vascular disease. If you have intermittent claudication (pain in your calves with walking), your doctor may ask you to walk more. Walking may stimulate new blood vessels to grow and this will improve circulation.

Do you need surgery for PVD?

If the tests show that you have blockage in the larger arteries to your feet or legs, your doctor may recommend surgery. The three types of surgery available for PVD are:

Angioplasty – this procedure involves passing a deflated balloon on a tube to the point where the blockage occurs. Then the balloon is carefully inflated to open the narrowed artery. Sometimes a stent (a tiny metal device shaped like a spring) is inserted in the artery to keep it open.
Bypass – this is a method that bypass the blocked area by using a blood vessel from another part of the body (or an artificial blood vessel). Although this surgery is a little complicated, it can save your foot.

Final word

People with diabetes often have many blockages in the arteries of the lower legs and feet, making it difficult to restore circulation. That is why prevention is the best avenue to take. Make sure you have an adequate diet to control blood sugar and blood fats, do not smoke and by all means, stay active.


I am Andy Carpenter and I would start by saying that I have a Bachelor Degree in Nutrition Science conferred by California State University, Los Angeles and that I am certified as a Registered Dietitian.

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