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Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease occurs when the major arteries in your neck become narrowed or blocked. These arteries, called the carotid arteries, supply your brain with blood. The two carotid arteries, one on each side of the neck, are the main blood supply to the brain. Each carotid artery extends upward from the aorta in the chest and into the base of the skull to enter the brain.

Carotid artery disease can lead to stroke

Approximately 25% of strokes are caused by carotid artery disease from atherosclerosis, a build-up of plaque in the arteries that carry blood to the brain. Eventually, the artery narrows, blood flow is decreased, and the risk of stroke is increased. The patient may experience symptoms such as blurred vision, slurred speech, or weakness, which are all signs of stroke.

By removing the fat and cholesterol build-up inside the artery, adequate blood flow is restored, which can help prevent a stroke. Blockages of carotid arteries in the neck are responsible for more than half of all strokes.

Atherosclerosis can lead to carotid artery disease

As people age, arterial plaque made up of cholesterol, other lipids, calcium, and fibrous tissue can build up in the walls of their arteries. As the plaque deposits enlarge, the arteries become narrow and stiffened, causing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which tends to develop later in life.

Atherosclerosis begins with partial but progressive blockage or narrowing of arteries. When enough plaque has accumulated to interfere with blood flow in the main arteries to the brain, a person is said to have severe carotid artery disease. A complete blockage that stops all blood flow through the carotid artery can follow. 

What are the risk factors for carotid artery disease?

Fewer than 1% of adults in their 50s have significant narrowing of their carotid arteries. But 10% of adults in their 80s have extensive narrowing. Patients are at increased risk for developing carotid artery disease and stroke if they have a general tendency to have atherosclerosis, commonly in the form of coronary artery disease, or have a family history of heart disease or stroke.

Factors that put people at greater risk for carotid artery disease include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of atherosclerosis

What are the symptoms of carotid artery disease?

Carotid artery disease may not cause symptoms in its early stages. Unfortunately, the first sign of carotid artery disease could be a stroke. However, you may experience warning symptoms of a stroke called transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. Symptoms of a TIA usually last for a few minutes to an hour and include:

  • Feeling weakness, numbness, or a tingling sensation on one side of your body, for example, in an arm or a leg
  • Being unable to control the movement of an arm or a leg
  • Losing vision in one eye (many people describe this sensation as a window shade coming down)
  • Being unable to speak clearly

These symptoms usually go away completely within 24 hours; however, you should not ignore them. Having a TIA means that you are at serious risk of a stroke in the near future. You should report TIA symptoms to your physician immediately. If you experience the above symptoms for longer than a few hours, or they don't resolve within 24 hours, a stroke has probably occurred. You should contact your physician immediately.

How is carotid artery disease treated?

Once carotid artery disease has been diagnosed, the goal of treatment is to reduce the risk of a stroke. A stroke can occur if the carotid artery becomes blocked, a piece of plaque breaks off and travels to smaller arteries of the brain, or a clot forms and blocks a narrowed artery.

Ultimately, a stroke occurs when brain cells are deprived of the oxygen and glucose carried to them by blood. To prevent the disease from getting worse, doctors unblock the arteries to restore adequate blood flow through the carotid artery. There are two techniques for doing this: carotid artery stenting and endarterectomy .

If you have developed symptoms of carotid artery disease, please seek medical attention right away. A vascular surgeon at South Florida Vascular Associates would be happy to see you in any of our South Florida locations. Call (954) 725-4141 for more information today or request an appointment online.