Smoking: The primary risk factor for developing PAD
Smoking is bad for your health. For many of us, this message is conveyed early and often. However, while side effects such as lung damage and lung cancer are more well known, many people do not realize the extent to which smoking impacts the blood vessels and the important role it plays in the development of Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD).
The chemicals in tobacco negatively effect the overall function of the heart and blood vessels. Smoking alone impacts blood flow, but nicotine also causes the blood vessels to tighten. When plaque accumulates and hardens in the arteries, they become narrowed, which decreases the flow of blood and prevents oxygen from reaching the legs. As noted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, this buildup of plaque in the arteries is called atherosclerosis, which is more prevalent in smokers. As blood flow to the legs is reduced, PAD begins.
According to the CDC, smoking significantly increases a person’s risk of developing PAD or can worsen PAD symptoms after the condition has been diagnosed. In fact, approximately 90 percent of patients with PAD have a history of smoking. If a person with PAD continues to smoke after being diagnosed, they may experience more pain, limited mobility, or an overall progression of the disease. They also put themselves at a greater risk for developing serious complications of PAD, including lower limb amputation, heart attack, or death.
On a positive note, a study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that patients who stopped smoking after a PAD diagnosis did not experience new signs of claudication seven years later. Claudication is pain or weakness in the legs that begins with physical activity and stops soon after resting. While stopping smoking will not reverse a PAD diagnosis, it will significantly increase a person’s long-term survival rate.
If you are over the age of 50 and have a history of smoking (casual smoking or heavy smoking), it is vitally important that you get tested for PAD. The American Heart Association recommends screening of PAD with ABI to those 50-64 years of age with a history of smoking. ABI or Ankle Brachial Index, is the ratio of ankle-to-brachial systolic blood pressure. A simple ABI exam can be performed within minutes by a primary or cardiovascular physician. Call your doctor today to inquire about this life-saving exam.