Buerger's disease is a rare disease that causes inflamed blood vessels in the arteries and veins of the arms and legs. It can also lead to blood clots, known as thrombi [THRAHM-bee]. As a result, blood flow is cut off to parts of the body. A lack of blood flow can damage or kill skin tissues and may lead to more serious infections.
This condition usually starts in the hands and feet, but may move up the arms and legs. Although Buerger’s disease usually leaves the internal organs alone, the ischemia [ih-SKEE-mee-uh], which means “lack of blood flow,” to the arms and legs is still very severe. It is important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible if symptoms start to appear.
Buerger's disease is linked to tobacco use, including smoking cigarettes or using chewing tobacco. In order to stop the disease, patients must quit all forms of tobacco. Using tobacco after diagnosis may lead to amputation – a surgery that removes all or part of a limb, such as a fingers or hands.
Buerger’s disease often starts with pain in the feet or hands during exercise or while at rest. The pain usually begins in the outer limbs, such as hands, feet, legs, and arms, but may move to other areas of the body. This pain can be very intense.
Other symptoms include:
- Tingling in the limbs
- Changes in skin color
- Skin ulcers (an open wound)
- Gangrene (dead body tissue)
The exact cause of Buerger’s disease is not known. Things that increase your risk of getting Buerger’s disease include:
- Smoking. Most people with Buerger’s disease smoke cigarettes or use tobacco products.
- Sex. The disease is more common in males.
- Age. The disease usually appears at 40-45 years of age.
Buerger’s disease can be difficult to diagnose because many other diseases can cause decreased blood flow to the outer limbs. It is important to correctly diagnose Buerger’s disease so it’s properly treated.
While no test can completely confirm Buerger’s disease, your doctor may perform several tests to rule out other common conditions. These tests may include:
- Allen’s test: The Allen’s test is a simple test to check the blood flow through the arteries of your hand. If the test shows slow blood flow, the doctor will likely order more tests.
- Blood tests. Blood tests help rule out other conditions.
- Angiogram. An angiogram is a procedure that checks the condition of arteries and veins. Most often, a doctor will inject a special dye into your artery and take a series of x-rays. The images may show signs of the disease.
There is no cure for Buerger’s disease.
If you are diagnosed with Buerger’s disease and use tobacco, you must quit now. The only way to stop the disease from getting worse is to stop using all tobacco products. Patients who don’t stop smoking will usually require amputation. Any form of nicotine in any amount can cause Buerger’s disease to get worse.
Ask your healthcare provider for a copy of Intermountain’s booklet: Quitting Tobacco: Your Journey to Freedom (https://intermountainhealthcare.org/ext/Dcmnt?ncid=51062043)
Other treatments exist but are less effective. These include:
- Medicines that improve blood flow, dissolve blood clots, or open the blood vessels
- Spinal cord stimulation to help lessen pain
- Compression of the arms and legs to help increase blood flow
- Amputation to surgically remove dead tissue or body parts