The carotid arteries are the blood vessels that transfer blood between the heart and the brain. There is one located on each side of the neck. If the plaque builds up enough and breaks off inside the artery, it can cause a blood clot to form. Carotid artery disease occurs when there is a build-up of plaque, a waxy substance made up of cholesterol, calcium, fibrous tissue, and other cellular debris as well as fatty deposits in the carotid arteries. The disease develops slowly over time and can become very serious without showing any previous symptoms. The first sign of the disease may show itself during a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is a temporary stoppage in the blood flow to the brain.
Carotid artery disease begins when there is damage to the interior walls of the carotid arteries. The healing process will begin, potentially causing plaque to build up inside the artery. Artery damage can be caused by smoking, high levels of certain fats and cholesterol in the blood, high blood pressure, and high levels of sugar in the blood due to insulin resistance or diabetes. Major complications as a result of carotid artery disease include both stroke and TIA. Stroke can occur when a blood vessel has become so narrowed by plaque that blood can no longer pass through, when a piece of plaque has cracked or ruptured effectively blocking the flow of blood, or when a blood clot forms around a cracked piece of plaque in an attempt to heal the blood vessel.
Carotid artery disease is a medical emergency, as it can result in a stroke if left untreated. Carotid artery disease is the most common cause of stroke in adults in North America. As it is developing, carotid artery disease doesn’t often show any symptoms. The first symptoms may be a stroke or a TIA once the disease has advanced enough to deprive the brain of blood flow. Symptoms of a blockage of blood flow to the brain include numbness or weakness in the face or limbs (sometimes on only one side of the body), trouble speaking and understanding words, trouble seeing, dizziness or loss of balance, and severe headache with no known cause.
Carotid artery disease can be detected prior to stroke, which is why it is important to maintain a regularly scheduled physical exam with your physician. Blocked or clogged arteries make a particular sound when listened to with a stethoscope. This may be detected during a regular exam with your doctor.
If carotid artery disease is discovered before a stroke has occurred, treatment is aimed at preventing stroke. This often includes lifestyle changes and changes to diet. If you are someone who smokes or maintains an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle, these will need to be changed. If high blood pressure or cholesterol is the cause, medication may be prescribed to help the patient control this.
If the disease is discovered as the causation for a stroke, treatment is aimed at recovering from damage caused by the stroke and preventing further strokes from occurring. This may involve surgery to widen the arteries and remove the blockages already present.
Preventing carotid artery disease can be summed up by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Eat a diet that is low in fat, salt, and sugars to maintain blood pressure and cholesterol. Consume lots of fruits and veggies, as these will fuel your body with natural nutrients it needs to fight off artery-clogging plaque development. Exercise regularly and do your best to keep stressors to a minimum. If you are overweight, losing weight is the best way to prevent the disease developing. If you smoke or drink excessively, stop.
Carotid artery disease is a slow-developing illness that causes severe narrowing or blockages in the carotid arteries on either side of the neck. If left undetected and undiagnosed, carotid artery disease can result in a stroke or TIA. Unfortunately, the disease often shows no signs or symptoms before it becomes serious enough for this to occur.
Causes and risk are often related to medical history or unhealthy lifestyle habits. Other risk factors include underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes. Depending on when the disease is detected, treatment will focus on changing the unhealthy habits of the patient or relieving the underlying cause of the disease, such as high blood pressure or cholesterol. At times, surgery is required.