Do your legs ache when you walk but feel better when you stop to rest? Do you have painful ulcers on your feet? These are just a few symptoms of a condition known as “peripheral vascular disease.”

Peripheral vascular disease occurs when a blood vessel somewhere in the body, other than the brain or heart, becomes abnormally narrowed. This blockage prevents blood from circulating normally through the body, usually to the legs or feet.

If you notice pain in your legs or feet when you’re moving around that clears up as soon as you rest, ask your health care provider if you should be tested for peripheral vascular disease.

People with diabetes are much more likely than their counterparts to develop this condition. If you smoke, you’re at an even higher risk.

Here’s what you need to know to recognize and prevent peripheral vascular disease.

Painful legs, particularly in the calves, with walking is also known as “claudication” [clod-uh-CAY-shun]. The pain you feel in your legs is caused when a narrowed artery prevents blood flow to your muscles, limiting the oxygen and nutrients delivery to these muscles, which they desperately need when you’re moving your legs. By itself, claudication is not worthy of an emergency room visit—but it is an early warning sign.

Left untreated, claudication can become so severe that the pain no longer fades away when you rest. If this happens, call your health care provider right away. This could signal a near-complete block of blood flow known as “critical leg ischemia.”

Critical leg ischemia is a medical emergency and must be treated as soon as possible. Caught early, this condition can be treated surgically to restore blood flow. But in severe cases, providers must remove, or amputate, the affected foot or leg. Always call your provider when you first notice symptoms, even if they seem minor!

Health care providers will usually ask patients a list of questions to find out how long they’ve had the pain, what triggers it, and what it feels like. Patients with claudication usually notice that they can walk a specific number of steps each time before they start to feel pain in their legs. This information helps doctors distinguish claudication from other types of leg pain.

Imaging tests, like ultrasounds or angiograms, can detect blocked blood vessels. The provider might also measure the patient’s blood pressure in the ankle and wrist to make sure the results are similar. Lower blood pressure in the ankle compared with the wrist might lead the doctor to suspect a blockage in blood flow to the legs.

Depending on how severe your condition is, your health care provider might recommend anything from lifestyle changes, medications for related conditions (i.e. high blood pressure or cholesterol), or surgery.

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