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What is the Difference Between Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) and Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 August 2016
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Peripheral artery disease (PAD) and restless leg syndrome (RLS) may have some symptoms in common, but are quite different illnesses. They do, however, both primarily affect the legs, and both can be treated. However, causes for PAD are easier to identify than causes for RLS in many cases.

Narrowing in the arteries due to fatty deposits causes PAD. In this way, it is like the artery disease that affects the heart. PAD may also sometimes be referred to as peripheral vascular disease, since PAD may also cause other arteries like those in the neck to become blocked.

With one exception, PAD generally has a known cause. However, in functional PAD, the blood vessels and arteries are fine, but occasionally a spasm will occur provoking severe pain. Spasms may be linked to cold weather, smoking or exercise.

In organic PAD, the cause is clearly narrowed artery pathways. In early stages this can cause leg cramping during exercise that ceases at the end of the exercise. PAD sufferers are also at high risk for stroke, since an artery can become blocked and send a blood clot to the brain.

Generally PAD is addressed through changes in lifestyle. These include quitting smoking, following a low fat diet, and getting regular exercise. PAD sufferers may also take anticoagulant agents to prevent blood clots, or may also take medication to lower cholesterol. In some cases, those with PAD require angioplasty to open up narrowed veins.

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In primary RLS, the condition may be linked to inheritance. Generally there is no known cause. Symptoms of RLS include urge to move the legs when one is sitting or lying down, and pins and needles or feelings like things are crawling on the legs. PAD can be associated with sleep difficulties too, as pain in the legs may make sleep difficult. With RLS, sleep is often affected by the legs spasming or moving when one has just settled down to sleep. Thus nighttime waking is quite common.

Certain psychiatric medications, diseases like diabetes, and use of caffeine and tobacco may cause secondary RLS. Often this type of RLS is completely curable if diseases can be cured or if the cause is identified and removed.

For those with incurable RLS, medications and lifestyle changes like refraining from smoking can help reduce symptoms. Both RLS and PAD can be alleviated by the patient removing certain activating agents like nicotine.

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