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Carotid artery disease

Reviewed by Charles Young, MD
Carotid artery disease

Carotid artery disease can be caused by a number of things from smoking to diabetes and can lead to a variety of symptoms, most seriously a stroke.

What is it?



Carotid artery disease is the build up of plaque on the walls of the carotid arteries. Everyone has two carotid arteries located on either side of the neck. They go on to divide into smaller internal and external carotid that travel and supply oxygenated blood to the brain, face, scalp and neck. When plaque builds up on the walls of one of these arteries, the artery becomes narrow and the blood supply restricted. If carotid artery disease causes the blood supply to the brain to be cut off completely, it will cause a stroke, also known as a brain attack. Depending on how long the flow of blood is cut off for can determine the severity of the outcome of the stroke. After a few minutes, brain cells will begin to die and damage can include disability, brain damage, vision or speech problems, paralysis and even death.

Atherosclerosis



When plaque builds up on the walls of arteries in other areas of the body it is called atherosclerosis. Over time as the plaque builds up and hardens, the arteries become narrower and narrower reducing the amount oxygen-rich blood supplied to the organs and other parts of the body. Any artery in the body can succumb to this condition and the part of the body affected depends on which artery is affected. If it occurs in one of the coronary arteries in the heart then it will ultimately lead to a heart attack. Similarly, in the case of carotid artery disease, as the plaque continues to build it will ultimately lead to a stroke.


Other causes of stroke



Another cause of a stroke is when blood clots form in these carotid arteries, which may also form a blockage preventing blood flow to the brain. Blood clots can occur in an attempt to repair cracked or ruptured artery plaque. Alternatively the clot may break off and travel in the bloodstream and eventually become lodged and cause a blockage in one of the brains smaller arteries again leading to a stroke. In many cases there are no symptoms or signs of carotid artery disease until the artery is already mostly or fully blocked. It is not unheard of for the first sign that patients are aware of to be a stroke. 

Prognosis



As with most diseases the sooner treatment is administered the better the prognosis. For individuals who have suffered from this condition, a blocked artery needs to be tended to within 4 hours after symptoms occur. Lifestyle changes can help to treat the carotid artery disease and prevent a stroke. There is also medicinal treatment available.

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