Carotid Artery Disease
What is carotid artery disease?
The carotid arteries run along both sides of the neck and supply oxygen-rich blood to the brain, face, scalp and neck. Like the smaller coronary arteries of the heart, the carotid arteries over time can become clogged with a waxy substance called plaque. Over time plaque becomes calcified and plaque fragments can follow the circulation upstream towards the brain. Carotid plaque buildup not only reduces the amount of blood that can flow through the neck blood vessels (stenosis) but also causes carotid artery stiffening (sclerosis). This is carotid artery disease, accurately described as “hardening of the arteries”.
Carotid artery disease is a major risk factor for vascular dementia and stroke, which it can cause in two ways. First, a carotid artery blockage can stop the flow of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain, which may cause brain tissue to die. Second, small calcified fragments of plaque in the artery can break off and travel to the brain, blocking small blood vessels and depriving the nearby tissue of oxygen.
Carotid artery disease often does not produce any symptoms until a stroke or mini-stroke occurs. However, your doctor may be able to detect carotid artery disease during a routine physical exam. If you have carotid artery disease, your doctor may treat it by prescribing medication or performing a procedure to remove plaque or place a stent to hold the artery open. Carotid artery disease treatment is tailored to the individual patient and is based on stroke history, age, and general health status.
What are the symptoms of carotid artery disease?
Carotid stenosis may not produce any symptoms until the condition causes a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA or “mini-stroke”). During an office visit, your doctor may be able to detect a bruit, a specific sound of blood flow through your carotid arteries.
Common symptoms of TIA or stroke
TIA and stroke symptoms include:
Sudden onset of severe headache
One-sided weakness or facial drooping
Difficulty saying a complete sentence
Inability to move your arms or legs on one side
Feeling dizzy or losing your balance
If you or someone with you is experiencing signs of stroke, seek emergency medical attention—dial 911!
What are the risk factors for carotid artery disease?
The risk factors for carotid artery disease include items you can control and others you cannot. The major risk factors for carotid stenosis are:
Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
High-fat, low-fiber diet or a diet that is high in salty and smoked foods
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
Metabolic syndrome, a group of clinical indicators for cardiovascular disease of all types
Overweight or obesity
Reducing your risk of carotid artery disease
You may be able to lower your risk of developing carotid artery stenosis by following a heart-healthy lifestyle that includes:
Eating a diet that is high in fiber and fruits and vegetables
Maintaining a healthy weight
Participating in a regular exercise program
Treating diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and other medical conditions that put you at risk for cardiovascular disease
How is carotid artery disease treated?
Your carotid artery disease treatment plan will depend on whether or not you have symptoms or have had a stroke. Treatment for carotid artery disease may include:
Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, exercising, and eating a high-fiber diet
Medications to prevent blood clots, lower cholesterol, treat high blood pressure, or reduce blood sugar
Carotid endarterectomy, a surgical procedure to remove the diseased inner lining from one or both carotid arteries
Carotid angioplasty, a minimally invasive procedure that uses a small balloon to compress plaque against the artery wall and widen the opening to allow better blood flow
Carotid artery stenting, a minimally invasive procedure that places a mesh coil inside the artery to hold it open. A vascular surgeon may perform angioplasty and stenting at the same time.
What are the potential complications of carotid artery disease?
Stroke is the major potential complication of carotid artery disease. You can help minimize your risk of complications from carotid artery disease by following the treatment plan you and your health professional design specifically for you. Potential complications of stroke are: