The carotid arteries are two blood vessels, one on each side of the neck, that carry blood from the heart to the brain. These arteries can become partially or completely blocked thereby decreasing blood flow to the brain. People with untreated blocked carotid arteries are at increased risk for a major stroke.
This disease is caused by a condition called atherosclerosis. Commonly known as hardening of the arteries, atherosclerosis is caused by a build-up of cholesterol and calcium deposits on the inside walls of the arteries. These deposits are called plaques. The plaques may eventually become so thick that they completely block the flow of blood through the arteries.
You are at a higher risk for developing a blocked carotid artery if you smoke cigarettes, are diabetic, have high levels of blood cholesterol, have high blood pressure, or have a genetic tendency toward it.
Most people with blocked carotid arteries have no symptoms. The most common symptoms are transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), which are sometimes called mini-strokes and can last from minutes to 24 hours. Examples of TIAs include: slurred speech, weakness of the arm or leg, visual loss, unsteady gait, or loss of coordination. A person suffering TIAs is at increased risk for a major stroke and should seek urgent medical attention.
Your health care provider will listen to the arteries in your neck using a stethoscope. Blood flow through narrowed arteries is turbulent, and therefore noisier than normal blood flow. Depending on what your health care provider hears diagnostic tests may be ordered to measure the amount of blockage. These tests include ultrasound scans and/or special x-rays including an arteriogram, CT arteriogram, or magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA).
Carotid artery occlusive disease is a permanent but correctable condition. Treatment is designed to prevent further blockage and stroke.
If there is some blockage but you have no symptoms, your treatment may be just regular check-ups, ultrasound studies to monitor your condition, and medications. Your health care provider may prescribe medication that thins the blood or prevents the blood cells from forming clots. Even severe narrowing may produce no symptoms. If the blockage is very tight, surgery may be recommended to decrease the risk of stroke, whether or not you have symptoms.
Surgery involves removing the plaque from of the vessel. In selected cases, a balloon angioplasty may be performed.
It is important to follow your health care provider's instructions and treatment to control risk factors for atherosclerosis and decrease the risk of stroke.
In almost all cases, atherosclerosis is the cause of carotid artery disease. You can prevent or minimize atherosclerosis by diet modification, reaching and maintaining a normal weight, normal blood pressure, and normal blood sugar. Exercise regularly. If you smoke, stop! If you are diabetic, monitor your condition closely and follow all diet and medication instructions. Stress reduction is also beneficial.