Carotid Artery Disease

You have two carotid arteries – one on either side of the neck. They supply blood to the large, front part of the brain, where thinking, speech, personality, sensory and motor functions are controlled. If you place your finger just below your jaw line, you can feel your pulse as blood is moving through the carotid artery.

Like other blood vessels in the body, plaque can build up in the carotid arteries and reduce blood flow to your brain. The narrowing in an artery is called stenosis, and raises your chances of a having a stroke.

Many people have no symptoms until they have a life-threatening stroke. Other times, people might experience:

  • Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body
  • Sudden vision changes
  • Sudden trouble speaking
  • Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements
  • Sudden problems with walking or balance
  • A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches

If you have any of these symptoms of a stroke, call 911. 

How is carotid artery disease diagnosed?

During a physical exam, your doctor may listen to your neck for a “whooshing” sound as blood flows through the artery. This indicates the carotid artery has narrowed. To further diagnose how severe the problem is, your doctor may order:

  • Ultrasound: uses sound waves to show how blood flows through an artery or vein
  • CT or MRI scan: to see the structure of your arteries and check how well blood is flowing through them 

How is carotid artery disease treated?

The primary treatment goal is to lower your risk of a stroke and may include:

  • Medicines like aspirin or another medicine to prevent blood clots. You will likely also take a cholesterol medicine, called a statin.
  • Management of other conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes
  • Carotid endoarterectomy: a surgery used for severe carotid artery disease to physically remove the plaque from the artery
  • Stenting: to enlarge the narrowed part of the artery and place a stent to keep the artery open
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