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Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease occurs when cholesterol plaque builds up in the blood vessels that deliver oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Known as atherosclerosis, this process causes the arterial walls to become stiff, narrow and clogged over time. When obstructed by plaque, the carotid arteries cannot deliver sufficient oxygen and nutrients to critical brain structures that control many vital functions, such as speech, memory and movement. 

What Are the Risk Factors for Carotid Artery Disease? 

Factors that can weaken, irritate or damage the arterial walls and increase the risk of carotid artery disease include: 

  • High blood pressure 
  • Smoking 
  • Diabetes 
  • High blood fat levels 
  • Obesity 
  • Sleep apnea 
  • A sedentary lifestyle 
  • Advanced age 
  • A family history of carotid artery disease 

What Are the Symptoms of Carotid Artery Disease? 

In many cases, early-stage carotid artery disease does not produce noticeable symptoms. For this reason, the condition often goes undetected until it becomes serious enough to deprive the brain of blood, causing a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a life-threatening stroke. 

The signs of a TIA or stroke usually come on very suddenly and can include: 

  • Numbness or weakness in the face or limbs, often on one side of the body 
  • Difficulty speaking and understanding 
  • Vision problems in one or both eyes 
  • Dizziness or loss of balance 
  • Severe headache 

These symptoms constitute a medical emergency. When deprived of oxygen, brain cells begin to die within minutes. Although a TIA is a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain, it can be a warning sign of a future stroke and warrants immediate medical attention. 

How Is Carotid Artery Disease Diagnosed? 

If carotid artery disease is suspected, a physician will typically take a thorough medical history and perform a physical examination. Using a stethoscope, the physician will listen for a telltale swooshing sound (bruit) over the carotid artery in the neck, which is a common characteristic of a narrowed artery. The physician may also test the patient’s physical and mental capabilities, such as speech, memory and muscle strength.  

Additionally, the diagnostic process may include: 

  • Ultrasound imaging to assess blood flow and pressure in the carotid arteries 
  • A CT or MRI scan, which can reveal evidence of a stroke or other abnormalities 
  • A CT angiography or MR angiography (MRA) to obtain detailed images of blood flow in the carotid arteries using a contrast dye 

How Is Carotid Artery Disease Treated? 

Stroke prevention is the primary goal of treatment for carotid artery disease. The optimal approach can vary depending on the extent of the blockage.  

Some options include: 

  • Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and exercising regularly, to slow the progression of atherosclerosis 
  • Medications to control blood pressure or lower cholesterol 
  • A surgical procedure, such as carotid endarterectomy or carotid angioplasty and stenting, to remove the blockage 

Tampa General Hospital offers the latest treatment options for carotid artery disease and other heart and vascular conditions.