Carotid Artery Disease/Carotid Artery Stenosis
Carotid artery disease, also called carotid artery stenosis, refers to the narrowing of the carotid arteries, which are two large blood vessels that supply oxygenated blood to the large, front part of the brain. That part of the brain is responsible for thinking, speech, personality, sensory and motor functions.
The narrowing is caused by the buildup of fatty substances and cholesterol deposits, known as plaque. A complete blockage is referred to as carotid artery occlusion.
Stroke risk from carotid blockage
Carotid arteries can also develop atherosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries” on the inside of the vessel. Along with the narrowing of the arteries from fatty substances and plaque, this can decrease the flow of blood to the brain and greatly increases the risk of a stroke. See diagnosis, symptoms and treatment of stroke.
A stroke can occur if the artery becomes extremely narrowed, a rupture occurs in an artery to the brain resulting from atherosclerosis, a piece of plaque breaks off and travels to the smaller arteries of the brain, or a blood clot forms and blocks the blood vessel.
Risk factors for carotid artery disease
Risk factors for carotid artery disease are similar to those for other types of heart disease:
- Sedentary lifestyle
- History of coronary artery disease
- Family History of atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease or carotid artery disease
There are often no symptoms of a carotid artery blockage until you have a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke. Plaque can build up slowly over time until a stroke occurs.
As part of a regular physical exam, a physician can listen to the arteries in your neck using a stethoscope. An irregular sound, called a bruit, indicating an abnormal blood flow, can indicate carotid artery disease. Although somewhat inexact, this test is a simple, safe and inexpensive way to screen for narrowing of the carotid artery or for artherosclerosis.
Other carotid artery diagnostic tests include:
Carotid Ultrasound (Standard or Doppler):
A noninvasive test using high frequency sound waves to observe the carotid arteries, and detect blockage, narrowing or presence of plaque or clots. It reveals movement of blood through the blood vessels without ionizing radiation.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRA):
MRA is able to generate high-resolution images of the brain and arteries through the use of radio waves and a powerful magnet. It can often detect even small strokes in the brain.
Computerized Tomography Angiography (CTA):
CTA produces cross sectional images of the carotid arteries and the brain through the use of x-ray and computer technology, revealing areas of damage.
Cerebral Angiography (carotid angiogram):
This procedure provides the best information on the status of the carotids. Cerebral angiography allows the doctor to see narrowing or blockages on a screen as contrast dye is injected into the carotid arteries. There is a small risk of serious complications.
Doctors recommend the following to treat carotid artery disease:
- Healthy lifestyle habits
- Medications: anti-platelet medications such as aspirin to decrease the risk of blood clots and stroke
- Procedure to improve blood flow
Advanced treatment (surgery)
Learn more about how St. Vincent's expert team of surgeons treats advanced carotid artery disease.
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