All organs and tissues in your body need a steady stream of oxygenated blood to function. If blood flow to your heart is disrupted, you may have a heart attack. Similarly, if your brain does not receive the proper amount of blood, you may have a stroke. Stroke is the third highest cause of death in the United States, behind only heart disease and cancer, and is a leading cause of long-term disability. According to the American Heart Association, each year nearly 800,000 people in the United States will experience a stroke. Many strokes are the result of carotid artery disease, a narrowing and thickening, or "hardening," of the arteries that carry blood to the brain.
The carotid arteries are two large blood vessels located toward the front of the neck. Blood that travels from the heart passes through a large artery called the aorta and then through the carotid arteries to the brain. Each of these arteries splits into two separate arteries near the top of the neck to form the left and right internal and external carotid arteries. The larger of these two branched arteries, called the internal carotid artery, delivers oxygenated blood to portions of your brain responsible for cognition, speaking, and motor skills.
Narrowing of the carotid arteries is usually caused by build-up of a substance called plaque, which is made up of cholesterol, calcium, fatty substances, and other materials found in the bloodstream. When arteries are narrowed by plaque deposits, this is called atherosclerosis.
You may not know you have carotid artery disease until something goes wrong. Often a stroke victim will have no warning symptoms. However, some patients do experience warning signs in the form of a transient ischemic attack (TIA), sometimes referred to as a "mini-stroke." TIA symptoms, as for a stroke, include numbness or paralysis (usually on one side of the body), difficulty speaking or understanding, and temporarily dimmed or blurred vision. These symptoms resolve within a few minutes or hours, but they are your body's warning to contact your doctor right away.
If you are diagnosed with carotid artery disease, more treatment options are available now than ever before. Advances in treatment for heart disease are successfully being applied to carotid artery disease. Your physician may prescribe treatments as simple as lifestyle changes or medication.
For patients with a serious blockage in a carotid artery, a physician may recommend reopening the artery through a procedure called angioplasty. During angioplasty, a thin tube called a catheter is inserted into the artery and a small balloon opens to expand the blocked artery. Your physician will also usually place a stent, a tiny mesh tube, in the artery to help keep it open. Alternately, a surgical procedure called carotid endarterectomy may be indicated. During this surgery, an incision is made in the carotid artery to remove the blockage. A care team determined by the specifics of your diagnosis and including doctors, nurses, specialists, and lifestyle coaches will be there to assist you through treatment, recovery, and prevention.