What you should know about carotid artery disease
Of all the organs in your body, your brain requires the most blood flow to operate and function correctly. Despite accounting for just 2% of the average person's total body weight, it receives around 15% to 20% of the body's blood supply. When anything interferes with blood flow to your brain, severe complications and even death can occur.
Carotid artery disease is one of the most common conditions that cause reduced blood flow to the head and brain. It develops when the carotid arteries, two large blood vessels in the neck, become narrow or blocked, typically because plaque builds up. Plaque is cholesterol and other substances that can clog the arteries and reduce blood flow.
Early symptoms of carotid artery disease include feeling weak or dizzy and losing consciousness unexpectedly, but the disease may not always cause early symptoms. You may not know you have it until you experience a severe complication, such as a stroke.
4 common causes of carotid artery disease
According to the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, some causes and risk factors associated with carotid artery disease are hereditary or related to age. However, many can be reduced or eliminated through lifestyle choices.
Manageable risk factors include:
- Smoking. People who smoke are more likely to develop hardening of the arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis. Over time, smoking can damage the lining of the arteries, making them more likely to accumulate plaque. If you smoke, quit. Avoiding carotid artery disease is just one of many good reasons to quit smoking.
- High blood pressure. High blood pressure places more stress on your arteries. Over time, this can lead to scarring, rupture, and the formation of plaque deposits. Annual physicals with your primary care provider can help you identify if you have high blood pressure because, like carotid artery disease, it often causes no symptoms.
- High LDL cholesterol. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is known as "bad" cholesterol, and it leads directly to the formation of plaque deposits in the arteries. Regular checkups can help you keep tabs on high LDL, as well, so you and your provider can identify ways to lower it.
- Obesity. People with obesity are at increased risk for Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, both risk factors for carotid artery disease. Eating healthy and exercising can help you avoid Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, but your primary care provider can offer other suggestions if those aren't successful.
Is carotid artery disease serious?
Living with untreated carotid artery disease is dangerous. The condition is associated with many deadly health complications, including strokes.
People diagnosed with carotid artery disease can begin taking steps to treat or manage their conditions. When they do, they have much better outcomes and can live much longer than those who are undiagnosed or fail to properly manage their health.
According to the American Heart Association, a stroke is one of the most severe complications of carotid artery disease. A stroke occurs when a piece of plaque dislodges inside the arteries and prevents blood flow to the brain. The process is similar to how plaque building in the heart's arteries can cause heart attacks.
Carotid artery disease can also result in the formation of blood clots, which can block blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke.
In addition to a stroke, carotid artery disease can also lead to a transient ischemic attack (TIA), also known as a ministroke. TIA can cause paralysis or numbness on one side of the body. Unlike a stroke, TIAs often don't cause permanent damage. However, having a TIA puts you at an increased risk of a stroke.
How to know if you have carotid artery disease
There are four imaging tests commonly used to diagnose carotid artery disease:
- Carotid ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create pictures of the arteries and find blockages
- CT scans, which produce detailed views of arteries in the neck
- Magnetic resonance angiography, which is similar to a CT scan but uses magnets instead of radiation to produce images
- Cerebral angiography, which uses injections of a contrast material that travels through arteries so providers can detect them on an X-ray
Physical exams can also help your provider determine whether you are at high risk of carotid artery disease. If you are diagnosed with the condition, you can have a surgical procedure to open the artery to increase blood flow and prevent a stroke.
Reid Health offers heart scans and vascular screenings, which can be lifesaving, to help with early detection of carotid artery disease, coronary artery disease, and more. Request your vascular screening today.