Carotid artery disease, also called carotid artery stenosis, is the narrowing or blockage of one or both carotid arteries. The carotid arteries are the two main blood vessels on either side of the neck. They supply blood to the brain, other parts of the head, and the neck.
Carotid artery disease increases your risk for a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is a “mini-stroke” that causes stroke-like symptoms that then go away quickly.
What are the causes?
This condition is mainly caused by a narrowing and hardening of the carotid arteries (atherosclerosis). The carotid arteries can become narrow or clogged with a buildup of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances (plaque).
What increases the risk?
- Having certain medical conditions, such as:
High blood pressure (hypertension).
A family history of cardiovascular disease.
Inactivity or lack of regular exercise.
Being male. Men have an increased risk of developing atherosclerosis earlier in life than women.
What are the signs or symptoms?
This condition may not have any signs or symptoms until a stroke or TIA occurs. In some cases, your health care provider may be able to hear a whooshing sound (bruit). This can indicate a change in blood flow caused by plaque buildup. An eye exam can also help identify signs of the condition.
How is this diagnosed?
Carotid artery ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create pictures to show if the arteries are narrow or blocked.
- Tests that use a dye injected into a vein to highlight your arteries on images, such as:
Carotid or cerebral angiography, which uses X-rays.
Computerized tomographic angiography (CTA), which uses CT scans.
Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), which uses MRI.
How is this treated?
- Lifestyle changes, such as:
Exercising regularly or as told by your health care provider.
Eating a heart-healthy diet.
Maintaining a healthy weight.
Medicines to control blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood clotting.
- Surgery. You may have:
A carotid endarterectomy. This is a surgery to remove the blockages in the carotid arteries.
A carotid angioplasty with stenting. This is a procedure in which a small mesh tube (stent) is used to widen the blocked carotid arteries.
Follow these instructions at home:
Eating and drinking
Eat a healthy diet that is low in saturated fats and includes plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.
Avoid foods that are high in fat and salt (sodium).
Avoid foods that are fried, overly processed, or have poor nutritional value.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Do exercises as told by your health care provider to stay physically active. It is recommended that each week you get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of exercise that takes a lot of effort.
Do not use any products that contain nicotine or tobacco, such as cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and chewing tobacco. If you need help quitting, ask your health care provider.
- Do not drink alcohol if:
Your health care provider tells you not to drink.
You are pregnant, may be pregnant, or are planning to become pregnant.
- If you drink alcohol:
- Limit how much you use to:
0–1 drink a day for women.
0–2 drinks a day for men.
Be aware of how much alcohol is in your drink. In the U.S., one drink equals one 12 oz bottle of beer (355 mL), one 5 oz glass of wine (148 mL), or one 1½ oz glass of hard liquor (44 mL).
Do not use drugs.
Manage your stress. Ask your health care provider for stress management tips.
Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care provider. This is important.
Where to find more information
American Heart Association: www.heart.org
Get help right away if:
- You have any symptoms of a stroke. “BE FAST” is an easy way to remember the main warning signs of a stroke:
B – Balance. Signs are dizziness, sudden trouble walking, or loss of balance.
E – Eyes. Signs are trouble seeing or a sudden change in vision.
F – Face. Signs are sudden weakness or numbness of the face, or the face or eyelid drooping on one side.
A – Arms. Signs are weakness or numbness in an arm. This happens suddenly and usually on one side of the body.
S – Speech. Signs are sudden trouble speaking, slurred speech, or trouble understanding what people say.
T – Time. Time to call emergency services. Write down what time symptoms started.
- You have other signs of a stroke, such as:
A sudden, severe headache with no known cause.
Nausea or vomiting.
These symptoms may represent a serious problem that is an emergency. Do not wait to see if the symptoms will go away. Get medical help right away. Call your local emergency services (911 in the U.S.). Do not drive yourself to the hospital.
Carotid artery disease, also called carotid artery stenosis, is the narrowing or blockage of one or both carotid arteries.
Carotid artery disease increases your risk for a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA).
This condition can be treated with lifestyle changes, medicines, surgery, or a combination of these treatments.
Get help right away if you have any symptoms of stroke. The acronym BEFAST is an easy way to remember the main warning signs of stroke.
This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your health care provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your health care provider.