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The carotid arteries are the main blood vessels that carry blood and oxygen to the brain. When these arteries become narrowed, it’s called carotid artery disease. It may also be called carotid artery stenosis. The narrowing is caused by atherosclerosis. This is the buildup of fatty substances, calcium, and other waste products inside the artery lining. Carotid artery disease is similar to coronary artery disease, in which buildup occurs in the arteries of the heart and can cause a heart attack.
Carotid artery disease reduces the flow of oxygen to the brain. The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen to work. Even a brief pause in blood supply can cause problems. Brain cells start to die after just a few minutes without blood or oxygen. If the narrowing of the carotid arteries becomes severe enough that blood flow is blocked, it can cause a stroke. If a piece of plaque breaks off it can also block blood flow to the brain. This too can cause a stroke.
Risk factors associated with atherosclerosis include:
Although these factors increase a person's risk, they do not always cause the disease. Knowing your risk factors can help you make lifestyle changes and work with your doctor to reduce chances you will get the disease.
Carotid artery disease may have no symptoms. Sometimes, the first sign of the disease is a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a sudden, temporary loss of blood flow to an area of the brain. It usually lasts a few minutes to an hour. Symptoms go away entirely within 24 hours, with complete recovery. When symptoms persist, it is a stroke. Symptoms of a TIA or stroke may include:
If you or a loved one has any of these symptoms, call for medical help right away. A TIA may be a warning sign that a stroke is about to occur. TIAs do not precede all strokes, however.
The symptoms of a TIA and stroke are the same. A stroke is loss of blood flow (ischemia) to the brain that continues long enough to cause permanent brain damage. Brain cells begin to die after just a few minutes without oxygen.
The disability that occurs from stroke depends on the size and location of the brain that suffered loss of blood flow. This may include problems with:
Recovery also depends on the size and location of the stroke. A stroke may result in long-term problems, such as weakness in an arm or leg. It may cause paralysis, loss of speech, or even death.
The symptoms of carotid artery disease may look like other medical conditions or problems. Always see your doctor for a diagnosis.
Along with a complete medical history and physical exam, tests for carotid artery disease may include:
Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:
If a carotid artery is less than 50% narrowed, it is often treated with medicine and lifestyle changes. If the artery is between 50% and 70% narrowed, medicine or surgery may be used, depending on your case.
Medical treatment for carotid artery disease may include:
Medicines that may be used to treat carotid artery disease include:
If a carotid artery is narrowed from 50% to 69%, you may need more aggressive treatment, especially if you have symptoms.
Surgery is usually advised for carotid narrowing of more than 70%. Surgical treatment decreases the risk for stroke after symptoms such as TIA or minor stroke.
Surgical treatment of carotid artery disease includes:
You can prevent or delay carotid artery disease in the same way that you would prevent heart disease. This includes:
Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:
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