• Peripheral Vascular Disease: How Problems with Arteries & Veins Affect Legs, Brain & Kidneys

    Cardiovascular disease is more than a disease of the heart. It can affect any part of your body that relies on nutrient-rich and oxygenated blood to function. That includes your legs, arms, feet and kidneys. When the problem is in the blood vessels that carry blood to any part of the body other than the heart, it is called peripheral vascular disease (PVD). You can learn more about types of PVD by clicking on the following links:

    It’s also important to note that people who have blockages in the arteries in their legs, feet and kidneys are at greater risk for heart attack and stroke. The doctors and nurses on your healthcare team can talk to you about these risks and how to manage them.

    Legs and Kidneys Need Oxygen and Nutrients from the Blood

    When the cardiovascular system works the way it should, oxygen-rich blood from the lungs is pumped by the heart through one type of blood vessels, the arteries, to nourish the body’s organs and tissues (including the legs and kidneys) with oxygen and nutrients. The blood then returns to the heart via another type of blood vessel, the veins. From the heart, the blood travels to the lungs for a refill of oxygen before leaving again through the arteries.

    If the flow of blood in either direction (from or to the heart) is blocked or slowed, it can cause problems.

    Blood Flow from the Heart

    Atherosclerosis is a disease where arteries become blocked with plaque that contains cholesterol and fatty deposits. These blockages prevent the arteries from delivering oxygen and nutrients to the organs in the body and can increase your risk of serious health problems such as -

    • Heart attack
    • Chest pain or angina
    • Stroke
    • Peripheral artery disease (PAD)
    • Leg pain or poor circulation (claudication)
    • Leg and foot sores caused by severe reduction in blood flow (critical limb ischemia)
    • Kidney (renal) artery disease

    Blood Flow to the Heart 

    Sometimes PVD affects the veins, too, making it more difficult for the blood to make its return trip to the heart for more oxygen and nutrients. With the help of the muscles and valves in the veins, healthy veins defy gravity by pushing the blood in our feet and legs to the heart. When we sit or rest, valves within the veins close to prevent the blood from flowing back into the legs and feet.

    • If the veins and valves become weak or damaged, the valves might not close properly and blood accumulates where it doesn’t belong — in veins in the legs where it pools or clots. This problem is called Chronic Venous Insufficiency (CVI) or Chronic Venous Disease (CVD). Varicose veins and spider veins are fairly common, non-life-threatening forms of CVI, but they can cause discomfort and interfere with your daily activities.
    • Blood clots can also cause problems in the veins and other parts of the vascular system. Blood clots can block veins and increase the pressure on the vein walls. If the walls stretch or become weak it can prevent the valve from closing properly. A blood clot can also cause problems by breaking free and flowing through the vein to other parts of the body.
    • When a blood clot makes its way into an artery in the lung it’s called a pulmonary embolism (PE). A PE is usually caused by a blood clot that forms in a vein deep inside the leg or the pelvis, a condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT). Symptoms of PE include shortness of breath and coughing up blood. If you have symptoms of PE, call 911 immediately.

    You can learn more about conditions that affect the veins in the legs here.

    Finding the Problem

    The most common diseases of the heart and vascular system are listed below:

    Heart and Vascular Disease

    Origin and Nature of Problem

    Body Part Affected


    coronary artery (blockage)


    coronary artery disease; heart attack

    carotid artery disease (blockage)


    carotid artery disease; stroke

    peripheral arteries (blockage)

    legs, arms, and feet

    peripheral artery disease (PAD)

    Kidney (renal) arteries (blockage)


    kidney (renal) artery disease ; high blood pressure; kidney failure

    blood clot from vein deep inside body (usually legs) breaks free and travels the bloodstream to an artery in the lung where it can block blood flow


    pulmonary embolism (PE)

    Blood clots form deep with the body (usually in the legs)


    deep vein thrombosis, which can cause pulmonary embolism


    Damaged veins and vein valves in veins closer to the  skin allow blood to backflow and pool in the legs


    chronic venous insufficiency (CVI), varicose veins, and spider veins

    Blockages in the Arteries Leading to the Legs (PAD)

    Left untreated, peripheral artery disease (PAD) can make it difficult to carry out and enjoy your daily activities. But even more important — it can put your life at risk. According to the American Heart Association, people with PAD are four to five times more at risk for heart attacks and strokes. That’s because atherosclerosis affects the entire cardiovascular system. If you have plaque in the arteries in one part of your body - for example, your legs - you probably have it in other organs such as your heart (see diagram below). So it’s very important to identify the symptoms and treat cardiovascular disease in all its forms as early as possible. This may to reduce your risk of a heart attack, stroke, limb amputation or kidney failure down the road. Click here to learn more about peripheral artery disease (PAD).

    Leg Vein Problems (Venous Disease)

    Your legs are not supposed to hurt. If you have pain, swelling, or wounds in your legs or feet it is important to see your doctor. Don’t assume that it’s because you’re getting older. It’s true that as we age we are more at risk for developing problems in our legs, but it’s important to know what’s wrong and what you can do about it. One possible explanation is venous disease, especially if you have a history or spider veins or varicose veins. If you have unexplained pain, heaviness, or swelling in a leg or you can see veins in your legs because they are purple, twisted, and raised above the skin, talk with your doctor about venous disease. Click here to learn more about leg vein problems and how your doctor can help.

    Blockages in the Arteries Leading to the Kidneys

    Just like other organs in the body, our kidneys need oxygen and nutrients to function. If the arteries that carry the oxygen-rich blood to the kidneys are blocked or narrowed by the build-up of plaque, or atherosclerosis, it can damage the kidneys. The kidneys are also responsible for filtering our blood. So they need an uninterrupted flow of blood to be able to filter out everything that needs to be removed. Because the kidneys help to control blood pressure, high blood pressure that does not respond to medication is one symptom of blocked or narrowed arteries leading to the kidneys (renal artery disease). Besides putting your kidneys in danger, the high blood pressure that results from renal artery disease can affect other arteries and put you at greater risk for having a heart attack or stroke. Click here to learn more about kidney (renal) artery disease.