Think of your arteries as highways that connect commuters with their destinations and your blood as the traffic that travels these highways to connect with the rest of your body.
Sometimes an accident can slow traffic to a trickle with only one lane moving — or completely block a roadway, brining traffic to a standstill.
Something similar can happen inside the arteries: Narrowing or blockage caused by a buildup of calcium and other substances can decrease or completely block blood flow, a condition called peripheral arterial disease (PAD).
PAD becomes more common with age and is often associated with claudication, or pain in the legs. The pain is usually felt when a person is walking and the legs can't get the extra blood they need. Eventually, people with PAD may develop continuous pain or, if they don't get treatment, nonhealing wounds or ulcers.
All of this underscores the importance of treating PAD — clearing the highways to get all lanes of traffic moving and blood reaching its destination.
Jeffrey Snell, MD, an interventional cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center, recalls a patient with PAD who could barely walk because of leg pain from his severely blocked arteries.
Because his blockages were heavily calcified, or solid like bone, his options for clearing them were limited. In fact, he'd been told elsewhere that his only choice was bypass surgery, which creates a detour that reroutes blood flow around blockages that are holding up traffic.
Redirecting traffic flow
Fortunately, Rush offered the patient a better, minimally invasive solution. Thanks to a new device not widely available, the Diamondback 360º PAD System, physicians at Rush were able to drill through and essentially sand away his calcification. They then performed angioplasty, a procedure using a balloon to open the artery, and inserted a stent to keep it open, restoring the flow of traffic through the artery.
"It was perfect for his situation," Snell says. "Now, he can walk as far as he wants. His quality of life dramatically improved."
Rush is also researching new medications to relieve PAD symptoms and exploring leading-edge treatments, such as using genes and adult stem cells to grow new blood vessels. This process, known as angiogenesis, provides blood with small, alternative avenues to reach the muscles.
"This could be a whole new way to treat patients with PAD," Snell says. "If the main highway is closed, angiogenesis allows you to get there by taking side streets."
Connecting to services at Rush
PAD is incredibly complex, but at Rush you'll find a range of specialists, the latest treatments available and ongoing clinical trials for promising new treatments.
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