Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease (also known as carotid stenosis) occurs when there is a narrowing of the carotid arteries that is usually caused by a buildup of fatty substances and cholesterol. Carotid artery disease results in decreased blood flow to the brain, which can increase your risk for stroke. If you smoke, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, it's even more important to make sure your carotid arteries are clear.

You may experience no symptoms of carotid artery disease. Fatty substances can build up over time without warning signs, until you have a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke.

Carotid Artery Disease Risk Factors

If you or a loved one have two or more of the risk factors below, register for a free vascular screening to determine your carotid artery disease risk.

If you or a loved one have two or more risk factors, contact our Spectrum Health Vascular Team for a free screening to determine your carotid artery disease risk.

  • Age of 60 or older
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • History of smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • Family history of atherosclerosis (buildup of fat in the artery walls)

How your carotid artery disease is treated depends on how severely the artery (one or both) is blocked. Carotid artery disease is caused by plaque buildup, just like heart disease or peripheral vascular disease. Treatment is essential, since the carotid arteries carry blood to your brain.

Treatments for Carotid Artery Disease

Our fellowship-trained and board-certified physicians provide comprehensive vascular care in a patient-centered environment. The team of highly skilled physicians, nurses, advanced practice providers and support staff focuses on superior quality and exceptional patient experiences. Our accomplished vascular team combines experience and advanced technologies to achieve clinical excellence, from testing and diagnosis to treatment and rehabilitation.

Percutaneous Coronary Intervention (Angioplasty/Stent Placement)
An angioplasty is a less invasive procedure that opens a clogged artery with a small balloon. This can be done through the wrist (radial) or the groin (femoral) artery. Typically this procedure includes the placement of stents.

Carotid Endarectomy
This surgery removes plaque and clots from the carotid arteries.

Stent Placement
A small mesh tube is surgically placed in the blood vessel or artery to keep it open for blood flow. Some stents are embedded with drugs to offer further protection against clogging. Some heart conditions call for the use of bare metal stents.

Cardiac Rehabilitation
Spectrum Health offers the area’s largest and most comprehensive cardiac rehabilitation program for patients who have recently experienced a major cardiovascular episode or treatment.

What Is Carotid Stenosis?

Carotid stenosis is a narrowing of the lumen of the carotid artery. This artery is the main one that takes oxygen-rich blood to the brain. A lumen is the inside space of a tube such as an artery. Significant carotid stenosis occurs in 5 out of 1000 people 50 to 60 years old. It’s more common in older people: 100 out of 1000 people older than 80 have it.

What Causes Carotid Stenosis?

The cause is usually buildup of fatty deposits called plaques (as in atherosclerosis). Less common causes are aneurysms, inflammation of arteries (arteritis), and tears (dissection) of the carotid. Fibromuscular dysplasia, tissue damage after radiation therapy (postradiation necrosis), and spasm of blood vessels (vasospasm) are others.

Risk factors include high blood pressure (hypertension), high lipid values, diabetes mellitus, and smoking.

What Are the Symptoms of Carotid Stenosis?

Most people often have no symptoms until the degree of narrowing is severe. Other people may have ministrokes called transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). Most TIAs last less than 10 minutes. They’re caused when blood flow to a certain part of the brain stops for a short time. Symptoms depend on which arteries are affected. More common symptoms of TIAs include weakness or numbness on one side of the face or body (face, arm, leg). Vision changes, confusion, slurred speech, being unable to talk, and problems swallowing also occur.

How Is Carotid Stenosis Diagnosed?

The health care provider makes a diagnosis from the medical history and careful neurological examination. The health care provider listens to the carotid artery with a stethoscope for noises from abnormal blood flow called carotid bruit. Laboratory tests to measure levels of lipids (cholesterol, triglycerides) and a fasting glucose level are usually done. The health care provider will obtain an ultrasonography of the carotid arteries to evaluate the degree of narrowing of the lumen of the carotids. Angiography and magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) may be needed before surgery to better define the area that needs surgery. The health care provider may suggest seeing specialists (neurologist, vascular surgeon).

How Is Carotid Stenosis Treated?

Treatment depends on the degree of stenosis and symptoms. It can be medical or surgical. Medical management includes reducing risk (stopping smoking, controlling high lipid levels and diabetes) and low-dose aspirin (81 or 325 mg daily). Surgery for carotid stenosis is called carotid endarterectomy (CEA). It’s usually done in people with recent symptoms and 70% to 99% stenosis if their life expectancy is more than 5 years. The expertise of the surgeon performing the CEA plays an important role in determining the success of the operation.

DOs and DON’Ts in Managing Carotid Stenosis:
  • DO eat a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Limit your fats and eat little or no processed foods.
  • DON’T ignore symptoms. Call your health care provider if your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse with treatment. Call if you get new symptoms.
  • DON’T stop taking your medicine or change the dosage because you feel better unless your health care provider tells you to.
  • DON’T use any medicines (including over-the-counter and herbal products) without first asking your health care provider.
  • DON’T use tobacco products because they make vascular disease more likely and increase your risk of stroke.

Contact the following sources:

  • American Stroke Association
    Tel: 88478-7653
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
    Tel: (800) 787-6537

Copyright © 2016 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.

Ferri’s Netter Patient Advisor