Buerger’s Disease

Written by April Khan and Marijane Leonard | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


Buerger’s disease, also called thromboangiitis obliterans, is a disease that causes blockages in the blood vessels of your feet and hands. The blood vessels become inflamed, which reduces blood flow. Blood clots that further clog blood vessels also develop. The disease causes pain and can lead to tissue damage and, in severe cases tissue death (gangrene).

Buerger’s disease affects 20 out of 100,000 people per year in the United States, according to statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (CDC) This condition can affect people of any race and age group. However, it mainly affects Asian or Middle Eastern men between the ages of 20 and 40 who heavily use or have heavily used tobacco products, including chewing tobacco.

Causes of Buerger’s Disease

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 begins by causing the arteries to swell and blood clots to form in your blood vessels. This restricts normal blood flow and prevents blood from fully circulating through your tissues. This results in tissue death because the tissues are starved of nutrients and oxygen.

The risk for developing Buerger’s disease increases when you smoke heavily. Scientists aren’t certain of why tobacco smoke increases this risk, but the relationship between the two is well documented. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, almost everyone with Buerger’s disease uses tobacco.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Buerger’s Disease

Buerger’s disease usually starts with pain in the areas affected, followed by weakness in the same areas. Symptoms include:

  • pain in your hands and feet or your legs and arms (this pain may come and go)
  • open sores on your toes or fingers
  • inflamed veins
  • pale toes or fingers when in cold temperatures

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.

Long-Term Outlook

If you stop using tobacco products, the symptoms associated with Buerger’s disease may simply disappear without any need for treatment. If your condition is severe, complications such as gangrene or circulation problems in other parts of your body may be unavoidable. Severe gangrene might require limb amputation.

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