Carotid Artery Disease

Skip to the navigation

Topic Overview

What is carotid artery disease?

A carotid artery on each side of the neck supplies blood to the brain. Carotid artery disease occurs when a substance called plaque builds up in either or both arteries. The buildup can narrow the artery and reduce the blood flow to your brain. This can raise your chance of a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).

The narrowing in an artery is called stenosis. The more narrow an artery becomes, the greater the risk of stroke or TIA.

What causes carotid artery disease?

This disease develops in the same way as coronary artery disease.

Plaque can build up in the arteries in your body over time. This buildup is often called "hardening" of the arteries. Plaque may form because:

  • You smoke.
  • You have high blood pressure.
  • You have high cholesterol.
  • You have diabetes.
  • You have a family history of hardening of the arteries.

What are the symptoms?

Many people have no symptoms. For some people, a TIA or stroke is the first sign of the disease.

If you have any of these symptoms of a TIA or stroke, call 911 or other emergency services right away.

  • 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.

How is carotid artery disease diagnosed?

Stenosis may be found during a physical exam. Your doctor may listen to your neck for a sound called a bruit (pronounced "broo-EE"). This whooshing sound is often heard when a carotid artery is narrowed.

If your doctor thinks you may have stenosis, you will have a Doppler ultrasound. This test uses sound waves to show how blood flows through an artery or vein. You also may have a CT angiogram or a magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA).

Routine tests for carotid artery disease are not recommended for everyone. Experts recommend them only for people who have symptoms.footnote 1

Some companies sell ultrasound screening at shopping malls or other places. But insurance doesn't pay for these tests because they are not recommended by experts. Plus, your doctor isn't involved in prescribing the test. So he or she isn't there to explain the results to you. It's a good idea to talk to your doctor before having one of these tests.

How is it treated?

The goal of treatment is to lower your risk of a TIA or a stroke. Treatment depends on whether you have symptoms and how much of your arteries are blocked. You probably will take medicine. You also will be encouraged to make healthy lifestyle changes. Some people have procedures to lower their risk.

Medicines

You will likely take aspirin or another medicine to prevent blood clots. You will likely also take a cholesterol medicine called a statin.

Work with your doctor to manage other health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Avoid colds and flu. Get the flu vaccine every year.

Lifestyle changes

Heart-healthy lifestyle changes can help lower your risk of stroke.

  • Quit smoking. Avoid secondhand smoke too.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods.
  • Be active. Ask your doctor what type of exercise is safe for you.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.

Regular ultrasounds

If you have some stenosis—but you don't have symptoms—your doctor may want you to have routine ultrasounds. This is to see if the narrowing in your arteries is getting worse.

Surgery or stenting

Surgery in the arteries is called carotid endarterectomy. The doctor makes a cut in the neck and takes the plaque out of the artery.

Some people have a procedure called stenting. A doctor threads a thin tube through an artery in the groin and up to the carotid artery in the neck. Then he or she uses a tiny balloon to enlarge the narrowed part of the artery and places a stent to keep the artery open.

Surgery and stenting have a risk of serious problems, such as stroke or heart attack. People who are at increased risk for problems from surgery or stenting include those who have severe heart disease or other serious health problems. You and your doctor can decide together if you should have a procedure.

Health Tools

Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.

Decision Points focus on key medical care decisions that are important to many health problems.

References

Citations

  1. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2014). Screening for asymptomatic carotid artery stenosis. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspsacas.htm. Accessed July 11, 2014.

Other Works Consulted

  • Krishnaswamy A, et al. (2011). The nonsurgical approach to carotid disease. In V Fuster et al., eds., Hurst's The Heart, 13th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2315–2330. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Meschia JF, et al. (2014). Guidelines for the primary prevention of stroke: A statement for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke, published online October 28, 2014. DOI: 10.1161/STR.0000000000000046. Accessed October 29, 2014.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerE. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerJeffrey J. Gilbertson, MD - Vascular Surgery

Current as ofFebruary 20, 2015