Carotid Artery Disease: Everything You Need to Know

All people have internal carotid arteries in the neck that supply blood to the brain and external carotid arteries that supply blood to the scalp, neck, and face. This blood is normally rich with oxygen. When you have carotid artery disease, it means that a waxy substance known as plaque has built up in one or both sets of arteries. The presence of plaque can interrupt blood flow and cause a stroke.

A stroke can be immediately fatal or cause long-term disability in speech, movement, or vision. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States. It claimed the lives of 142,142 people in 2016.

Common Causes and Risk Factors of Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease begins when the inner layers of the arteries sustains damage. Without medical intervention or lifestyle changes, the plaque will only thicken over the years. Some of the most typical reasons for artery damage include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol and other types of fat in the blood
  • Insulin resistance or diabetes causing high levels of sugar in the blood
  • Tobacco use

Carotid artery disease shares many risk factors with coronary artery disease and peripheral artery disease. These include:

  • Age
  • Diabetes
  • First-degree relatives with atherosclerosis
  • High LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol
  • Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity or being overweight
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Tobacco use
  • Unhealthy diet

With the exception of being an older age, having a close relative with atherosclerosis, or having type 1 diabetes, the risk factors for carotid artery disease are mostly in your control. Many can improve with lifestyle changes while others will require medication to manage. If you are concerned about the possibility of developing carotid artery disease, we encourage you to schedule an appointment with your regular doctor at United Health Center (UHC) to discuss ways to lower your risks.

Symptoms of Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease may not cause any signs or symptoms until the plaque has built up to such a degree that it prevents proper blood flow through a carotid artery. People often do not realize that they have the condition until they develop a significant health problem. One of these is a bruit, which is a sound that a doctor can hear when placing a stethoscope over your carotid arteries. A bruit is a whooshing sound that can suggest narrowed or blocked arterial pathways. Your doctor will order further tests to confirm the condition in this situation.
A mini-stroke, formally known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA), is a common outcome of carotid artery disease. A mini-stroke produces the same symptoms as a regular stroke except that the symptoms resolve within 24 hours. You should seek immediate medical attention if you have even one of the following symptoms:

  • Severe headache that comes on suddenly that you cannot attribute to another cause
  • Difficulty understanding speech or speaking
  • Loss of balance or dizziness
  • Sudden weakness in the arms, legs, or face, typically on only one side of the body
  • Temporarily paralysis of one or more limbs
  • Sudden onset of vision difficulty in one or both eyes

A mini-stroke is often a warning sign that a major stroke could occur in the future. Working with your provider at UHC to manage risk factors is an essential prevention step.

As mentioned above, a major stroke can cause death or permanent disability. Since not all stroke victims have a TIA first, taking charge of your health by quitting smoking, consuming a healthy diet, and getting plenty of exercise are some of the most important things you can do to avoid a stroke.

How is Carotid Artery Disease Diagnosed?

If you or your doctor suspect that you could have this condition, the first step is to undergo a thorough physical examination. You should come to the appointment prepared to discuss your complete medical history, including known risk factors and family history of the disease.

Below are some of the diagnostic tests your doctor might perform for Carotid Artery Disease.

  • Carotid Ultrasound: This is the most common test and one that most doctors use before an angioplasty. Your doctor moves a wand over your neck that picks up sound waves and transmits them to a screen.
  • Computed Tomography Angioplasty (CT Angioplasty): This device takes pictures of the area in question from several different angles. A computer then transforms the pictures into 2D and 3D images for easier viewing.
  • Magnetic Resonance Angioplasty (MRA): This test uses radio waves and a large magnet to obtain pictures of your internal and external carotid arteries and then sends them to a computer screen.
  • Carotid Arteriogram: Your doctor will inject a contrast dye into a leg vein. The dye travels from the vein to your carotid arteries to highlight them for further examination.

Prevention Strategies for Carotid Artery Disease

If you have known risk factors for this condition, the best thing you can do is make the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce these risk factors. UHC is happy to provide you with additional resources on smoking cessation, losing weight, following a healthy diet, and more. We also encourage you to take advantage of our free screening for vascular and heart disease. UHC has joined forces with Dare to C.A.R.E. to make this free resource available to anyone who qualifies. To see if you qualify, call: (681) 342-1365.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing related symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.