The carotid arteries are the two main arteries that take oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain. When fatty deposits and cholesterol build up along the artery walls, blood flow to the brain becomes restricted. In some cases blood flow can become completely blocked. Carotid artery disease is the build up of plaque within the arteries that causes blockage of blood flow to the brain.
Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. and when blood flow to the brain is restricted, a person is at a much higher risk for experiencing one. Strokes can be devastating to not only the patient, but also to family and friends. While some functions return within months or years after a stroke, many stroke survivors are left with significant permanent deficits, such as paralysis, the inability to speak, or blindness in one eye.
Unfortunately, the first sign of carotid artery disease is often a permanent stroke. Some patients, however, will experience a “mini-stroke” or transient ischemic attack (TIA) as a sign of carotid artery disease. Research has shown that immediate medical treatment gives a patient a better chance at survival which is why it is important to recognize the risk factors and symptoms of carotid artery disease.
RISK FACTORS FOR CAROTID ARTERY DISEASE
The risk of developing carotid artery disease increases with age and include:
- High blood pressure
- Smoking or history of tobacco abuse
- High cholesterol
- History of heart disease
- Lack of regular exercise
- History of previous stroke
- Family history of vascular disease (hardening of the arteries)
- Irregular heartbeat or atrial fibrillation
WARNING SIGNS / SYMPTOMS OF STROKE
IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS EXPERIENCING ANY OF THESE SYMPTOMS – CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY !
- Sudden weakness, numbness, or tingling on one side of the body or face
- Sudden inability to control movement of a body part
- Loss of vision or blurred vision in one or both eyes
- Unexplained slurred speech or garbled talk
- Severe dizziness or confusion
- Sudden paralysis of an arm or leg
DIAGNOSIS OF CAROTID ARTERY DISEASE
During a physical exam, a doctor listens to the arteries in your neck. When a significant blockage is present, abnormal flow sounds are heard. Then, if a doctor suspects carotid artery disease, there are several tests that can be done to evaluate the carotid arteries for blockage. These include:
- Carotid Ultrasound: A non-invasive test that uses high-frequency sound waves to measure blood flow through the carotid arteries. This painless test determines the presence of plaque build up as well as the severity of the blockage.
- Carotid Angiography: A minimally invasive method of evaluating the blood flow in the carotid arteries using contrast material and live x-ray images.
- Computerized Tomography Angiography (CTA): Uses special x-ray equipment and contrast material to produce multi-dimensional pictures of your carotid arteries.
- Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA): Uses a series of magnets, radio-frequency pulses, and contrast material to produce images of the blood vessels in your neck.
TREATMENT OF CAROTID ARTERY DISEASE
Your healthcare provider will determine the best treatment option for you based on your medical history and the severity of your disease. A majority of patients who are diagnosed with mild to moderate carotid artery disease before symptoms develop can be treated with medication, risk factor management, and follow-up ultrasounds. For those patients who experience symptoms or are diagnosed with more severe disease, surgical options include:
- Carotid Endarterectomy: An open surgical repair by a small incision in the neck that cleans out the plaque build-up and/or replaces the diseased segment with a patch or bypass graft.
- Carotid Stent: A minimally-invasive procedure using catheter insertion in the groin and stent placement within the diseased segment of the artery.