Causes and Diagnoses

Causes and Diagnoses of Peripheral Vascular Disease

Many patients with peripheral vascular disease (PVD) have pain in their legs when walking. In some cases, some people experience no symptoms. PVD involves artery blockage and can put individuals at risk for amputations. Typically, patients who suffer this condition are also at risk for heart disease and stroke.

Risk factors are habits, traits or conditions that may increase your chances of developing peripheral vascular disease. These include your age, family history and gender (male or post-menopausal female).

Certain risk factors can be controlled or modified, reducing your chances of developing PVD include:

  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Cigarette smoking—the single most important risk factor
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure

If you notice long-term changes in your skin temperature or color on your extremities, non-healing wounds, numbness or burning in your legs or toes, restricted mobility or severe pain, make an appointment with your physician for a thorough examination.

Meet the Peripheral Vascular Disease Team

Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute is a nationally recognized destination for those who require highly specialized cardiovascular care.


Diagnosis of peripheral vascular disease may involve:

  • Angiogram: An X-ray of the arteries and veins using contrast dye detects blockage or narrowing of the vessels.
  • Blood lipid profile: A blood test measures total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
  • Doppler ultrasound imaging studies: High-frequency sound waves and a computer create images of blood vessels, tissues and organs.
  • Photoplethysmography (PPG): An exam using a very tiny blood pressure cuff around the toe and an infrared light to evaluate blood flow near the surface of the skin.
  • Pulse volume recording (PVR): Waveform analysis—a technique to calculate blood volume changes in the legs.
  • Treadmill walking test: an exam in which the patient walks slowly on a treadmill to try to mimic the effect of activity on the leg arteries.
  • Segmental blood pressure measurements: A comparison of blood pressure using a Doppler device in the upper thigh, above and below the knee, at the ankle and on the arm to determine any constriction in blood flow.