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Buerger's disease

Buerger's disease (thromboangiitis obliterans) is a rare disease of the arteries and veins in the arms and legs. In Buerger's disease, your blood vessels become inflamed, swell and can become blocked with blood clots (thrombi). This eventually damages or destroys skin tissues and may lead to infection and gangrene. Buerger's disease usually first shows in the hands and feet and may eventually affect larger areas of your arms and legs.

Buerger's disease is rare in the United States, but is more common in the Middle East and Far East. Buerger's disease usually affects men younger than 40 years of age, though it's becoming more common in women.

Virtually everyone diagnosed with Buerger's disease smokes cigarettes or uses other forms of tobacco, such as chewing tobacco. Quitting all forms of tobacco is the only way to stop Buerger's disease. For those who don't quit, amputation of all or part of a limb may be necessary.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Buerger's disease symptoms include:

  • Pain that may come and go in your legs and feet or in your arms and hands. This pain typically occurs when you use your hands or feet and eases when you stop that activity (claudication).
  • Inflammation along a vein just below the skin's surface (due to a blood clot in the vein).
  • Fingers and toes that turn pale when exposed to cold (Raynaud's phenomenon).
  • Painful open sores on your fingers and toes.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you think you may have signs or symptoms of Buerger's disease.

It isn't clear what triggers Buerger's disease. It's possible that some people may have a genetic predisposition to the disease. The condition is characterized by swelling in the arteries and veins of the arms and legs. The cells that cause the inflammation and swelling — and eventually blood clots — form in the vessels leading to your hands and feet and block the blood flow to those parts of your body.

Reduced blood flow means that the skin tissue in your hands and feet doesn't get adequate oxygen and nutrients. This leads to the signs and symptoms of Buerger's disease, beginning with pain and weakness in your fingers and toes and spreading to other parts of your arms and legs.

Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk of Buerger's disease. Heavy cigarette smokers (people who smoke one and a half packs a day or more) are most likely to develop Buerger's disease, though it can occur in people who use any form of tobacco, including cigars and chewing tobacco. People who smoke hand-rolled cigarettes using raw tobacco may have the greatest risk of Buerger's disease.

It isn't clear how tobacco use increases your risk of Buerger's disease, but virtually everyone diagnosed with Buerger's disease uses tobacco. It's thought that chemicals in tobacco may irritate the lining of your blood vessels, causing them to swell. Rates of Buerger's disease are highest in areas of the Middle East and Far East where heavy smoking is most common.

Although secondhand smoke isn't thought to be a major risk factor for Buerger's disease, if you're diagnosed, you should stay away from people who are smoking. Secondhand smoke could worsen your condition.

Chronic gum disease

Long-term infection of the gums also is linked to the development of Buerger's disease.

If Buerger's disease worsens, blood flow to your arms and legs decreases. This is due to blockages that make it hard for blood to reach the tips of your fingers and toes. Tissues that don't receive blood don't get the oxygen and nutrients they need to survive. This can cause the skin and tissue on the ends of your fingers and toes to die (gangrene). Signs and symptoms of gangrene include black or blue skin, a loss of feeling in the affected finger or toe, and a foul smell from the affected area. Gangrene is a serious condition that usually requires amputation of the affected finger or toe.

Virtually everyone who has Buerger's disease has used tobacco in some form, most prominently cigarettes. To prevent Buerger's disease, it's important to not use tobacco.

Quitting smoking can be hard. If you're like most people who smoke, you've probably tried to quit in the past, but haven't been successful. It's never too late to try again. Talk to your doctor about strategies to help you quit.

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