Carotid Artery Disease

Treating Cardiovascular Diseases in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois

Carotid artery disease is a condition that affects your carotid arteries, which are located on either side of your neck and supply oxygen-rich blood to your brain, face, neck and scalp.

Most people do not have any carotid artery disease symptoms. For some, a stroke or transient ischemic attack, or TIA, is the first symptoms of carotid artery disease.

If you’ve been diagnosed with carotid artery disease, plaque has built up inside your carotid arteries. Plaque is waxy substance made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium and other materials found in the blood. When plaque builds up in your carotid arteries, it causes them to harden and narrow, which can restrict blood flow to the brain and increase your risk for a stroke.

A stroke can occur when plaque or a blood clot partially or completely blocks blood flow in a carotid artery or in a smaller artery of the brain, depriving brain cells of oxygen-rich blood. When nearby nerve cells go without oxygen for 3 to 4 minutes, they begin to die.

TIAs are often referred to as mini-strokes. Although strokes and TIAs can have the same symptoms, TIA symptoms subside within a few minutes to a few hours without causing permanent damage.

Carotid artery disease can also be embolic in nature. This means that a small blood clot may form on the plaque’s rough surface. If the clot breaks loose, it can travel to the brain and block blood flow, causing a stroke.

Plaque buildup can occur in any of the body’s arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Learn about the signs and symptoms of atherosclerosis.

Carotid Artery Disease Symptoms

Symptoms of carotid artery blockage may include any of the following:

  • A sudden, severe headache with no known cause
  • An inability to move one or more of your limbs
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the face or limbs, often on just one side of the body
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech

Strokes and TIAs are considered medical emergencies. If you notice any of these symptoms, call 911 or your local emergency number right away. Early treatment after a stroke can help reduce serious brain damage and long-term disabilities. Early treatment after a TIA can help prevent a stroke from occurring.

Risks for Carotid Artery Disease

There are many factors that can increase your risk for developing atherosclerosis and carotid artery disease. Some of these risks can be avoided or managed with medications and lifestyle changes while others cannot.

Avoidable or manageable risks include:

  • Being overweight or obese (especially having a waist circumference greater than 35 inches for women and greater than 40 inches for men)
  • High blood pressure (Learn about hypertension signs and symptoms.)(link)
  • High cholesterol
  • Metabolic syndrome (Learn about metabolic syndrome symptoms.) (link)
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Uncontrolled diabetes or insulin resistance
  • Unhealthy diet

Unavoidable risks include:

  • Advancing age (being 45 and older for men; 55 and older for women)
  • Having a family history of atherosclerosis (especially serious complications before age 55 in a mother or sister, or before age 65 in a father or brother)

Diagnosing Carotid Artery Disease

If you think you have some of the risk factors for carotid artery disease, talk to your doctor. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent this condition from progressing and causing a medical emergency.

During your exam, your doctor will listen to your carotid arteries with a stethoscope, carefully checking for a specific whooshing sound known as bruit. Your doctor will ask about your risks, your health history and your family’s health history.

Depending on the results, your doctor may perform any of the following tests:

  • Carotid angiography, a type of X-ray that uses a special contrast dye
  • Carotid duplex ultrasound to show whether plaque has narrowed your carotid arteries
  • Computed tomography angiography, also known as CT angiography, which takes X-ray pictures from many angles and then combines them into 2-D and 3-D images
  • Doppler carotid ultrasound to shows how blood moves through your carotid arteries
  • Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), which uses a large magnet and radio waves to take digital pictures of your carotid arteries, which can then be viewed on a screen

Treating Carotid Artery Disease

When treating carotid artery disease, the goals are to stop the condition from getting worse and prevent a stroke from occurring. Your treatment will be based on the severity of your condition and your specific risks.

To keep carotid artery disease from progressing, your doctor may recommend any of the following lifestyle changes:

  • Eat a heart healthy diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, fish and whole grains, and low in fat and sugar
  • Get more exercise
  • Lose weight
  • Quit smoking

A healthy lifestyle can help many people bring their cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar levels to appropriate levels. When that’s not enough, your doctor may prescribe medications to help manage these conditions. To prevent a stroke from occurring, your doctor may prescribe a daily aspirin or anticoagulants.

If your carotid artery disease is severe, your doctor may recommend either of the following procedures:

A Leader in Treating Carotid Artery Disease

Aurora Health Care physicians and staff are very active in developing new technologies that improve current treatment standards for carotid artery disease. One example is the carotid artery stent with an emboli-capture device. This innovation not only helps open a restricted carotid artery but also helps prevent blood clots from blocking your carotid artery, reducing your stroke risk and the risk of other carotid artery disease symptoms.

Find a doctor or heart specialist near you. To get a second opinion or if you need assistance finding a provider, please call 888-649-6892.