Carotid artery disease is a gradual process that slowly blocks the artery, and therefore often does not present any warning signs until the artery is almost totally closed. A stroke or a "mini-stroke" (transient ischemic attack) might be your first indicator that your carotid arteries are not healthy.
Stroke. A stroke occurs when proper blood flow to the brain is interrupted. Blood travels through the carotid arteries to carry vital oxygen to the brain. When the brain is deprived of oxygen, damage begins immediately and can be permanent. Blood flow through the carotid arteries can be restricted or blocked in one of two ways: either through narrowing of the arteries by build-up of a fatty substance called plaque in the artery, or from a portion of a blood clot breaking free elsewhere in the body and becoming lodged in one of the carotid arteries or an artery deeper in the brain. Strokes also can be caused by rupturing of blood vessels in the brain.
Seeking medical attention as soon as a stroke is suspected is of critical importance. Symptoms of a stroke include numbness, usually on one side of the body; difficulty speaking and understanding; dizziness; headache; and difficulty seeing. Physicians can work to restore blood flow to the brain to minimize damage.
If you experience the sudden onset of one or more of the following symptoms, call 911 immediately. DO NOT attempt to drive yourself to the hospital.
- Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side
- Trouble speaking or understanding
- Trouble seeing with one or both eyes
- Trouble walking, loss of balance or coordination
- Severe headache with no known cause
Women may be more likely to experience the sudden onset of the following symptoms:
- Chest pain or shortness of breath
- Racing heart
Transient ischemic attack (TIA). A transient ischemic attack, or "mini-stroke," has symptoms exactly like those of a stroke. Symptoms of a TIA usually resolve within 24 hours. This does not mean that the person who experienced the TIA should not seek medical care. More than a third of people who experience a TIA will later have a stroke. A TIA can therefore serve as a warning, and an opportunity to identify carotid artery disease before a more serious medical event takes place.
Bruit. When your doctor examines you, he or she may put a stethoscope on your neck and listen. This is a simple diagnostic procedure that can sometimes detect a whooshing sound called a bruit. This sound indicates uneven blood flow through the carotid arteries, which can be caused by narrowing of those arteries. While a bruit can indicate carotid artery disease, some medical professionals think it may not give as much information as to whether that patient will eventually have a stroke. A bruit, therefore, can be a starting point for a diagnosis but must be supplemented by other tests.