Carotid artery disease is a serious condition that develops when blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain (the carotid arteries) become narrowed by a fatty, waxy substance called plaque. This is one of the primary causes of a stroke. The blockages caused by carotid artery disease can restrict blood flow to brain tissue or promote a blood clot that cuts off blood flow entirely, causing an ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke. Less commonly, a blood vessel in the brain can rupture, causing a hemorrhagic stroke. When the flow of blood to brain tissue is cut off, that tissue begins to die, resulting in disability or even death.
In fact, stroke is a leading cause of death and long-term disability in the United States. According to the American Heart Association, each year nearly 800,000 people in the United States will experience a stroke.
Identifying and treating carotid artery disease is critical in reducing the risk of a first or recurrent stroke. Learning more about carotid artery disease is an early step in working to protect your brain’s health.
The Anatomy of Carotid Artery Disease
Carotid artery disease occurs when the carotid arteries in the front of the neck become narrowed, limiting the delivery of oxygen to the brain. Oxygenated blood that travels from the heart passes through a large artery called the aorta and then through the carotid arteries. The main carotid arteries continue to branch into smaller blood vessels that the supply the head and brain with blood.
Narrowing of the carotid arteries is usually caused when plaque builds up on the artery walls. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, calcium, fatty substances and other materials found in the bloodstream. When arteries are narrowed by plaque deposits, this is called atherosclerosis. This same process also causes coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack.
Carotid Artery Disease Gives Little or No Warning
Many people do not know they have carotid artery disease until they have a stroke. This is because many stroke victims will have no warning symptoms. However, some patients do experience warning signs in the form of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), sometimes referred to as a “mini-stroke.”
TIA symptoms, as for a stroke, include numbness or paralysis (usually on one side of the body), difficulty speaking or understanding, and temporarily dimmed or blurred vision. These symptoms completely resolve within a few minutes or hours, but they are your body's warning to contact your doctor right away.
Carotid Artery Disease Can Be Treated
If you are diagnosed with carotid artery disease, more treatment options are available now than ever before. Advances in treatment for heart disease are successfully being applied to carotid artery disease. Your physician may prescribe treatments as simple as lifestyle changes or medications.
For patients with a serious blockage in a carotid artery, a physician may recommend reopening the artery through a procedure called carotid angioplasty. During angioplasty, a thin tube (catheter) is inserted into one of your leg arteries and is passed up to the blocked carotid artery. Your physician may also place a tiny mesh tube (stent) in the artery to help keep it open. Alternately, a surgical procedure called carotid endarterectomy may be indicated. During this surgery, an incision is made in the carotid artery to manually remove the substance causing the blockage. A care team determined by the specifics of your diagnosis, including doctors, nurses, specialists, and lifestyle coaches, will be there to assist you through treatment, recovery, and prevention.
It is important to remember that a stroke is a medical emergency and that anyone who experiences the warning signs of a stroke should dial 911 immediately. Emergency treatment increases the odds of minimizing damage to brain tissue. Click here earn about the warning signs of stroke and why it is so important to act FAST when you notice stroke signs in yourself or anyone else.
Carotid artery disease is one of the main contributors to ischemic stroke. Learn more in the SecondsCount Carotid Artery Disease Center here.
Strokes can also occur when a blood clot that developed in the heart travels to the brain and blocks blood flow to the brain tissue. Learn more about cardiac embolism and stroke here.