Acute Limb Ischemia

acute limb ischemia

Acute limb ischemia is a sudden decrease in limb perfusion that can potentially threaten limb viability, in patients presenting within 2 weeks of symptom onset (it is considered chronic if more than 2 weeks have passed). The common causes of limb ischemia are:

  • Arterial embolism (80% of cases)
  • Thrombus (usually from site of atherosclerotic plaque)
  • Arterial trauma (e.g., after interventional catheterization procedures)

The symptoms can come on over a period of hours or days. It is important to recognize this condition, in order to improve the chance of limb preservation. Acute limb ischemia is characterized by the 6 P’s:

  • Pain
  • Paresthesia
  • Polar/Poikylothermia (affected extremity is cool on palpation)
  • Pallor
  • Paralysis
  • Pulselessness

If no pulse is palpable, then assessment of perfusion with a Doppler ultrasound is the next step. Note that acutely ischemic limbs may not always appear pale; the extremity may progress to a blue or mottled appearance as the ischemia continues. The most reliable symptoms are paresthesias, which will progress to complete loss of sensation, and paralysis, which may indicate the limb is no longer viable.

Once acute limb ischemia is identified, intravenous heparin is administered. Surgical or endovascular revascularization is the definitive treatment for acute limb ischemia, though these interventions should be performed within 6 hours of symptom onset to improve the probability of limb salvage.

  • Callum K and Bradbury A. 2000. ABC of arterial and venous disease: acute limb ischemia. British Medical Journal; 320:764.
  • Creager MA, Kaufman JA, and Conte MS. 2012. Acute limb ischemia. New England Journal of Medicine; 366:2198.
  • Mitchell ME, Mohler III ER, and Carpenter JP. Acute arterial occlusion of the lower extremities (acute limb ischemia). In: Uptodate (Eds: Clement DL, Hoekstra J, and Collins KA). Accessed 2013.08.24.

 

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