A new study lead by The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers has found that a simple test that measures blood flow through the ankle helps identify people with peripheral artery disease (PAD) before they start showing symptoms.

The study shows that the test, called an ankle brachial index (ABI), may be useful in screening people who have already suffered a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA), said Souvik Sen, M.D., director of the UNC Stroke Center and the study’s principal investigator.

Stroke and TIA survivors are already at risk of suffering another stroke, TIA, heart attack or death, Sen said. Our study found that 26 percent of survivors also had PAD without showing any symptoms, and this group suffered three times more subsequent strokes, heart attacks and deaths than survivors without PAD.

When we find PAD early, we can treat it and the patient has a much better chance of avoiding future adverse events, Sen said.

PAD occurs when arteries in the lower legs become obstructed by plaque. Symptoms include leg pain, cramping, weakness and limping. However, surveys show that up to one-third of patients never report such symptoms to their doctors and less than half of general physicians routinely ask.

The ABI test uses a device similar to a blood pressure cuff to measure blood flow in the ankle and compares that to blood flow in the arm. Reduced blood flow in the ankle is considered to be an indicator of PAD.

The test can be easily performed in 15 minutes in a doctor’s office or at the bedside of hospitalized patients, Sen said.