Peripheral vascular examination frequently appears in OSCEs. You’ll be expected to pick up the relevant clinical signs using your examination skills. This peripheral vascular examination OSCE guide provides a clear concise, step by step approach to examining the peripheral vasculature system, with an included video demonstration.


Wash hands
Introduce yourself
Confirm patient details
Explain examination
Gain consent
Ask if patient has any pain anywhere before you begin!

General Inspection

Comfortable at rest?
Look around bedside for treatments or adjunctsmobility aids / O2 / cigarettes / medications
Obvious scars - may provide clues as to previous surgical procedures
Cyanosis / pallor of limbs 

Upper body

Temperature - if ↓ may indicate poor peripheral perfusion
Colour - e.g. cyanosis / pallor
Capillary refillshould be < 2 seconds
Tar staining - smoking is a risk factor for PVD
Tendon xanthomahypercholesterolemia
Gangrene – necrosis secondary to inadequate limb perfusion


Radial pulse  – assess rate & rhythm – palpate for at least 5 cardiac cycles

Brachial pulse – assess volume

Blood pressure:

  • Record BP in both arms - significant difference may indicate aortic aneurysm
  • You’ll usually not be required to perform this during the OSCE (due to time constraints)
  • However ensure you acknowledge that you would ideally carry this out

Carotid pulse:

  • Medial to the sternocleidomastoid & beside the trachea
  • NEVER palpate both simultaneously
  • Auscultate for a bruit - may suggest stenosis at carotid bifurcation
Lower body

Compare the legs
Scars - bypass surgery / vein harvest sites (great saphenous vein)
Hair loss - PVD
Discolouration - e.g. haemosiderin staining (sign of venous disease – not PVD)
Pallor – suggests poor vascular perfusion
Missing limbs / toes –  previous amputation
Ulcers - venous vs arterial – look between toes and lift feet up
Muscle wasting – may indicate PVD
Ask patient to wiggle their toes – gross motor assessment


Temperature – compare the legs
Capillary refill-  < 2 seconds is normal - prolongation suggestive of PVD


Work proximal to distal – this allows you to assess & compare inflow into each leg

If pulses are not palpable, a doppler can be used to assess blood flow through a vessel

Aorta – located in the midline of the epigastrium

  • Ensure to palpate either side of the aorta feeling for expansion –  aneurysm
  • Auscultate for aortic bruits –  suggestive of an aortic aneurysm


Femoral pulse - best palpated at the mid inguinal point

  • Palpate to confirm its presence & assess volume
  • Auscultate to detect any bruits – femoral / iliac stenosis


Popliteal pulse – palpated in the inferior region of the popliteal fossa

  • With the patient prone, flex the knee to 45º
  • Place your thumbs on the tibial tuberosity
  • Curl your fingers into the popliteal fossa to compress the popliteal artery against the tibia allowing you to feel its pulsation
  • This pulse is often difficult to palpate – NEVER lie and say you can feel it if you can’t, instead be honest, the popliteal artery is the deepest structure within the fossa, so the examiner will understand. If this does happen, simply move on to assessing pedal pulses.


Posterior tibial pulse

  • Posterior to the medial malleolus of the tibia


Dorsalis pedis pulse – dorsum of the foot

  • Lateral to the extensor hallucis longus tendon 
  • Over the 2/3rd cuneiform bones


Buerger’s test

This test could be carried out to further demonstrate poor lower limb perfusion

1. Ensure the patient is positioned supine


2. Standing at the bottom of the bed, raise both of the patients feet to 45º for 2-3 mins:

  • Observe for pallor – emptying of the superficial veins 
  • If a limb develops pallor, note at what angle this occurs e.g. 20º (known as Buerger’s angle)
  • A healthy legs toes should remain pink, even at 90º
  • A Buerger’s angle of less than 20º indicates severe limb ischaemia


3. Once the time limit has been reached, ask patient to place their legs over the side of the bed:

  • Observe for a reactive hyperaemiathis is where the leg first returns to its normal pink colour, then becomes red in colour – this is due to arteriolar dilatation (an attempt to remove built up metabolic waste)
To complete the examination

Thank patient
Wash hands
Summarise findings


Say you would…
Perform a full cardiovascular examination
Perform an ABPI test – if indicated


Mr Craig NesbittSpR in Vascular Surgery

Mr Sandip NandhraSpR in Vascular Surgery