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Carotid Artery Disease


What is carotid artery disease?

Carotid artery disease is a condition that causes narrow or blocked carotid arteries. Your carotid arteries are the blood vessels that supply your brain with most of the blood it needs to work. You have 2 carotid arteries, one on each side of your neck.

Carotid Artery

What causes carotid artery disease?

Carotid artery disease is caused by atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Atherosclerosis means fatty deposits build up in an artery and form plaque. Plaque buildup is what narrows or blocks one or both carotid arteries. Plaque in the arteries also increases your risk for blood clots. Blood clots can travel to different areas of the body and cause serious problems, such as a stroke.

What increases my risk for carotid artery disease?

  • Older age or being male
  • A family history of atherosclerosis or stroke
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or problems with blood circulation
  • Smoking cigarettes

What are the signs and symptoms of carotid artery disease?

You may have no signs or symptoms. Most commonly, carotid artery disease causes transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), or mini-strokes. You may have numbness, weakness, lack of movement, or vision or speech problems. A TIA goes away quickly and does not cause permanent damage. A TIA may be a warning sign that you are about to have a stroke. If you have any symptoms of a TIA or stroke, seek care immediately.

What are the warning signs of a stroke?

The word F.A.S.T. can help you remember and recognize warning signs of a stroke.

  • F = Face: One side of the face droops.
  • A = Arms: One arm starts to drop when both arms are raised.
  • S = Speech: Speech is slurred or sounds different than usual.
  • T = Time: A person who is having a stroke needs to be seen immediately. A stroke is a medical emergency that needs immediate treatment. Some medicines and treatments work best if given within a few hours of a stroke.

How is carotid artery disease diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and listen to your heart. You may also need any of the following:

  • An ultrasound or CT may be used to check your carotid arteries. The pictures can help your healthcare provider see narrowing or blood flow problems.
  • Arteriography or magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) may be used to check your carotid arteries. Contrast liquid is injected into an artery in your leg or arm to help the carotid arteries show up better in the pictures. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid. Do not enter the MRA room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is carotid artery disease treated?

The treatment you receive depends on how narrow your arteries have become, your symptoms, and your general health. The goal of treatment is to lower your risk for a stroke. You may need any of the following:

  • Take aspirin if directed. Your healthcare provider may suggest that you take an aspirin a day to prevent blood clots from forming in the carotid arteries. If your healthcare provider wants you to take aspirin daily, do not take acetaminophen or ibuprofen instead.
  • Control risk factors. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and being overweight increase your risk for atherosclerosis. Take medicines to treat a disease or condition you have that may damage your carotid arteries. Examples include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
  • Procedures can help open blocked arteries. A carotid endarterectomy is used to cut plaque out of the artery. An angioplasty is used to push the plaque against the artery wall with a balloon device. Sometimes a stent is placed during an angioplasty. A stent is a metal mesh tube that is placed in the artery to keep it open.

What can I do to manage carotid artery disease?

  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruit, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, lean meat, and fish. Choose fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and fresh tuna. Ask your healthcare provider for more information on a heart healthy diet and the DASH eating plan.
  • Limit sodium (salt). Sodium may increase your blood pressure. Add less table salt to your foods. Read food labels and choose foods that are low in sodium. Your healthcare provider may suggest you follow a low sodium diet.
  • Reach or maintain a healthy weight. Extra weight makes your heart work harder. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should weight. He can help you create a safe weight loss plan. Even a weight loss of 10% of your body weight can help your heart function better.
  • Exercise as directed. Exercise helps improve heart function and can help you manage your weight. Exercise can also help lower your cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise at least 5 times each week. Try to be active every day. Your healthcare provider can help you create an exercise plan that works best for you.
  • Limit alcohol. Alcohol can increase your blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Men should limit alcohol to 2 drinks per day. Women should limit alcohol to 1 drink per day. A drink of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can cause heart and lung damage. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.

Call 911 for any of the following:

  • You have any of the following signs of a stroke:
    • Numbness or drooping on one side of your face
    • Weakness in an arm or leg
    • Confusion or difficulty speaking
    • Dizziness, a severe headache, or vision loss
  • You have any of the following signs of a heart attack:
    • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in your chest
    • and any of the following:
      • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm
      • Shortness of breath
      • Nausea or vomiting
      • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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