What Are the Carotid Arteries?

The carotid arteries are major blood vessels located on both sides of the neck that pump blood from the heart to the neck, face and brain. Each carotid artery breaks off into two divisions:

  • The internal carotid that supplies the brain with blood, and
  • The external carotid that supplies blood to the face and neck

What Is Carotid Stenosis?

Carotid stenosis—also known as carotid artery disease—is a slow buildup of plaque (known as atherosclerosis) on the internal walls of the artery, resulting in restricted blood flow and increased risk of stroke. The plaque is made up of cholesterol, fibrous tissue and calcium, as well as other cellular debris that adheres to microscopic cracks forming in the artery walls. 

What Are the Symptoms of Carotid Stenosis?

In the early stages of the disease, signs and symptoms don’t generally appear. In fact, carotid stenosis may go undiagnosed until a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA) occurs. (A TIA is a “mini-stroke” that does not cause permanent symptoms.) 

Signs of a stroke or TIA can include:

  • A severe headache that occurs abruptly
  • Face drooping, where one side of the face droops or the smile is uneven
  • Speech difficulty, where speech is slurred, the patient is unable to speak, or the patient is hard to understand
  • Sudden loss of balance or dizziness
  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the limbs or face, typically only on one side

Note: If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, please dial 9-1-1 immediately. Any delay in care could result in serious complications or death.

What Are the Risk Factors for Developing Carotid Stenosis?

Factors that increase the risk of carotid stenosis may include:

  • A sedentary lifestyle. A lack of regular exercise contributes to other conditions or diseases that can result in carotid stenosis, including high blood pressure and diabetes
  • The arteries lose their elasticity over time, becoming more prone to injury
  • Being diabetic makes it more difficult for the body to process fats, which can lead to high blood pressure and plaque development
  • Family history. The risk is higher in those with relatives who have atherosclerosis or carotid stenosis
  • High blood pressure. Increased blood pressure places a strain on the artery walls, making them more susceptible to injury
  • Excess weight increases the risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and atherosclerosis
  • Nicotine can inflame the walls of the arteries, and smoking can cause high blood pressure, as well as an and increased heart rate 

How Is It Diagnosed?

Following a thorough examination, carotid stenosis may be diagnosed using diagnostic imaging, such as:

  • Ultrasound to evaluate blood pressure and flow in the arteries
  • Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to search for abnormalities or signs of stroke
  • CT angiography or an MR angiography, which use contrast dyes injected into a blood vessel to view blood flow to the neck and brain

What Are the Treatment Options?

Treatment for carotid stenosis depends on the severity of the blockage and if the patient is symptomatic. If the blockage is mild to moderate and the patient isn’t experiencing any symptoms, lifestyle changes (e.g., changing diet, quitting smoking, losing weight, etc.) and medications can effectively manage the condition.

If the blockage is severe (or the patient has already suffered a stroke or TIA), surgery may be required to remove the blockage. Procedures to do so include:

  • Carotid endarterectomy, a procedure in which the artery is opened through an incision in the neck, and the plaque is removed
  • Carotid angioplasty and stenting, where a small balloon is threaded through a catheter to the area that’s blocked and inflated to make room for a small wire mesh insert (stent) to keep the artery from becoming narrow

At IGEA Brain & Spine, our team of caring professionals is dedicated to providing you with the comprehensive care you deserve when dealing with carotid stenosis and its effects. For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact us today.