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.
The cause of Buerger’s disease isn’t always known. Some sufferers of this condition may be genetically predisposed to developing it.
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.
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.
Tests and Diagnosis
There is no test to determine if you have Buerger’s disease. However, there are tests your doctor can perform to rule out other conditions. A simple blood test can help your physician pinpoint whether your symptoms are from lupus, diabetes, or blood clotting disorders, which can display the same symptoms as Buerger’s disease.
In some cases, an angiogram—which checks the health of your arteries—may be necessary. In this test, your doctor injects a dye into your artery and then performs an X-ray of the area to view blockages in your arteries.
Another test your physician may perform is called an Allen test. This is a noninvasive test that requires you to make a tight fist while your physician presses on the artery of your hand. When you open your fist and your doctor releases the pressure from the artery, your hand should quickly turn from pale to its original color. If the color changes slowly, this might be an indication of Buerger’s disease.
Treatment Options for Buerger’s
Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for Buerger’s disease. However, the symptoms of this condition can be treated and controlled through increasing your circulation, quitting use of tobacco products, avoiding cold weather, and, in some cases, having the affected nerves cut. The nerves are cut to eliminate pain, and this is done through a surgical procedure (sympathectomy).
You can increase your circulation by drinking plenty of fluids and staying active.
Preventing Buerger’s Disease
Prevent the worsening of your symptoms by quitting smoking and staying away from secondhand smoke. If you are diagnosed with Raynaud’s disease, avoid using tobacco products to decrease your risk of developing Buerger’s disease.