Carotid artery disease is a condition characterized by the narrowing of the arteries located between the heart and the head (carotid arteries). The narrowing is caused by a buildup of a fatty substance (plaque) on the walls of the arteries (atherosclerosis). This situation is very dangerous because blood flow to the brain can be reduced or even stopped, causing a stroke. When having a stroke, the brain does not get enough oxygen. Strokes are common causes of permanent disability and death.
Unfortunately, there are not many symptoms of the early stages of the disease. Many people will not know they have the disease until they have a stroke. Sometimes blood flow to the brain will only be blocked temporarily and will cause a “mini-stroke” (transient ischemic attack or TIA). Symptoms of strokes and TIAs include: trouble seeing or speaking, dizziness, severe headaches, and sudden weakness or numbness in the face and limbs, usually only affecting one side of the body.
There are many risk factors for carotid artery disease. The disease is more common in older individuals. Carotid artery disease is also more common if there is a family history of the disease. Other risk factors include obesity, smoking, high blood pressure, lack of exercise, diabetes, and high blood-fat levels. If you have spells where you stop breathing at night (sleep apnea), you also may be at risk of a stroke.
To diagnose carotid artery disease, your doctor will ask you about your family’s medical history and perform a physical exam. They may also use imaging tests, such as ultrasounds and MRIs, to get a better view of your arteries. Treatment of carotid artery disease may include healthy lifestyle changes, medication, or surgery. Research is ongoing, so if you have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, talk to your doctor and specialists about the most current treatment options. Support groups can help connect you with others living with coronary artery disease.