Carotid Artery Disease
The carotid arteries are large blood vessels in the neck which help carry blood to the brain. Similar to how plaque can build up in the coronary arteries and cause a heart attack, plaque can build up in the carotid arteries over time. If the plaque is left untreated it can potentially become so bulky that pieces can break off and go into the brain or it can even suddenly become completely blocked, leading to a stroke.
The risk factors for developing plaque in the carotid arteries are similar to those for heart attacks, including:
- Older age
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
During a physical exam, your doctor may listen to your carotid arteries in your neck with a stethoscope, checking for a abnormal sound which comes from the irregular blood flow around a carotid plaque. If your doctor hears such a sound, he or she will send you for an ultrasound exam to check for the presence of carotid plaque.
Signs and Symptoms
Unfortunately, a stroke is often the first sign of a carotid plaque. This can result in weakness on one side of the body, slurred speech, confusion, temporary or permanent disability and even death. Other signs of carotid plaque include transient ischemic attack, or “ministroke,” which means that a person has stroke-like symptoms which resolve quickly. Finally, a condition called amaurosis fugax, in which a “dark gauzy curtain descends over one eye and then goes away,” can result from small pieces of plaque temporarily blocking the blood supply to one eye.
Low to medium amounts of plaque in your carotid artery have a low risk of stroke and can often be treated with medications and regular monitoring. However, when the plaque build up reaches a high or critical level, the effective treatment recommended is often surgery.
Carotid endarterectomy is a standard surgery to treat individuals with carotid artery disease. It helps to remove plaque from the artery of the neck and restore the proper blood flow to the brain. The surgery is done in the hospital and involves an overnight stay.