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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: July 2015

27 - Arterial examination of the lower limbs

from Section 6 - Vascular surgery




• Patient supine, legs and abdomen exposed

• Groin covered but accessible

Physiological parameters


• Bedside: GTN spray, cigarettes, lighter

• Hands: tar stains, finger pricks for glucose measurement (diabetes)

• Radial pulse: heart rate and rhythm (rule out AF)

• Eyes: xanthelasmas (hyperlipidaemia)

• Neck: carotid endarterectomy scar

• Chest: sternotomy or thoracotomy scars

• Abdomen: laparotomy scars, pulsating abdominal aortic aneurysm


Skin :

• scars: laparotomy, femoral cut-down, crossover grafts, bypass grafts, vein harvest (upper and lower limbs)

• sinuses or purulent discharge

• colour changes: – pallor/duskiness/cyanosis (ischaemia, thrombosis, phlegmasia) – erythema/cellulitis (infection)

• tissue loss: ulcers, gangrene (wet or dry)

Soft tissues :

• trophic changes: skin, hair, nails, toe-tip infarcts

• calf swelling: DVT, lymphoedema

• calf wasting

Bone :

• amputations


Skin : temperature

Soft tissues : calf muscles and foot:

• tender (ischaemic or infected)

• tense (compartment syndrome)

• fluctuant (abscess)

Vascular :

• capillary refill time (< 3 sec)

• pulses: aorta, femoral, popliteal, tibialis posterior (TP), dorsalis pedis (DP)

• pulses: bypass grafts

Neurology : short neurological exam (touch sensation and movement, L3, L4, L5, S1)


• Bruits: common femoral and superficial femoral arteries, grafts or arteriovenous fistulas (not routinely done)

Special tests

• Buerger's angle: cadaveric pallor and venous guttering on leg elevation

• Buerger's test: reactive hyperaemia/rubor in the dependent leg following elevation

To complete the examination

• Ankle – brachial pressure index (ABPI)

• Venous, lymphatic and neurological examination of the lower limbs

• Complete abdominal and cardiovascular examinations

Examination notes

What are the symptoms of peripheral arterial disease?

• Intermittent claudication: pain on walking a fixed distance which is relieved by rest.

• Rest pain.

• Ulceration.

• Gangrene.

• Cellulitis or osteomyelitis can complicate ulceration and gangrene.