Doppler Exam: Leg Arterial

What is a Leg Segmental Arterial Doppler Ultrasound Exam?
A leg arterial exam is a test that looks at the blood circulation in the arteries of your arms or legs to see if there is any blockage.

Peripheral Circulation
The function of blood circulation is transportation – bringing food and oxygen to the body’s cells and organs. As the heart pumps the blood, the arteries serve as highways to carry the blood away from the heart. The arteries must be open in order to keep the body’s cells alive and healthy. “Peripheral” means the arteries that run along the arms and legs.

Atherosclerosis
The inside wall of a health artery is smooth and firm, letting the blood flow freely. As we age, the arteries may be affected by atherosclerosis – or “hardening of the arteries.” The inner lining of the artery gets thick and rough, with a buildup of cholesterol or fat, like rust in a pipe. This buildup is called “plaque,” and it can cause the artery to get narrow or even close off completely – reducing or stopping the flow of blood. Atherosclerosis can occur in all arteries, but the ones in the heart, neck and legs are the most commonly affected.

Symptoms
The symptoms depend on the amount of “detour” arteries that have developed to take over the work of the diseased arteries. These “collateral” or “detour” arteries are a bit like shortcuts or dirt roads that are off of the main highway, which people take to avoid a traffic jam.

  • Claudication pain – produced by a shortage of blood supply to a muscle during exercise. A cramp develops in the calf, thigh or buttocks. Rest, even just standing, will usually decrease these symptoms. 
  • Rest pain (pain at rest) – usually means advanced arterial disease. A severe or steady aching or burning sensation in the toes, heel or foot can be very painful. Temporary relief is found by keeping the leg and foot down in a lowered position for a short period of time (the effect of gravity helps blood flow).
  • Tissue necrosis (gangrene) – the most serious stage of arterial disease. As the disease gets worse, wounds and injuries might not heal and the skin becomes easily injured and starts to break down, leading to gangrene.

Risk Factors

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Elevated cholesterol
  • Family history of vascular disease
  • Lack of exercise

Diagnosis
If your doctor thinks that you might have peripheral arterial occlusive disease, he or she may order an arterial Doppler exam to confirm the diagnosis.

What Will Happen During the Exam?
The exam is not painful; there are no needles, catheters or dyes used. There are no X-rays. The test has no side effects. The exam uses ultrasound to listen to your blood flow.

You will be lying on a stretcher, and your clothing will be removed from the waist down for a better examination of your legs. The technician will ask you several questions about the reasons your physician ordered the exam.

Recordings of the arterial flow in the lower extremities will be taken by placing a small, smooth probe over parts of your arms and legs. This will determine whether a serious blockage is present in the large arteries. The circulation to your feet and toes also will be examined.

Your physician will receive a written interpretation of the test results within two to three days, and the physician will tell you what you should do next. The technician is not allowed to give you the test results, so don’t worry if they don’t tell you. They will notify your physician immediately with the results if they notice a potentially serious problem.

For patient appointments, see individual faculty pages.