The two common carotid arteries travel through the left and right sides of the neck, to deliver blood to the head. In the upper part of the neck, the common carotid artery divides into an external carotid artery that supplies blood to the face and an internal carotid artery that supplies blood to the brain.
Atherosclerotic plaque can build up in the wall of the carotid artery, most commonly where the common carotid artery bifurcates, or splits, into the internal and external carotid arteries. When plaque narrows the artery, it is called carotid artery stenosis.
Carotid artery stenosis increases the risk of having a stroke. The degree of stenosis (artery narrowing) is related to its risk of causing a stroke. Strokes can occur from decreased blood flow going past the plaque to the brain, or from pieces of plaque that break off (or embolize) and block smaller brain arteries. If you have been diagnosed with carotid artery stenosis, you should be evaluated by a neurosurgeon who specializes in this disorder.
Risk factors for carotid artery stenosis include:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Advanced age
- Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol)
Carotid artery stenosis may cause no warning symptoms at all before it causes a stroke. Sometimes, temporary warning symptoms will be present, which may include:
- Vision loss in one eye
- Speech problems
How is carotid artery stenosis diagnosed?
Sometimes a specialist may suspect carotid artery stenosis based on your history and physical examination. There are several imaging studies that can quantify the degree of carotid artery stenosis, including:
- Carotid ultrasound: Non-invasive test that uses sound waves to evaluate blood flow
- CTA of the neck: Special kind of CT scan that evaluates arteries in the neck
- MRA of the neck: Uses a powerful magnet to visualize the neck arteries
- Angiogram: A catheter-based procedure during which X-rays are taken while contrast dye is injected into arteries
If you have been diagnosed with carotid artery stenosis, there are ways to reduce your risk of developing a stroke. In mild cases, medicines can be used to lower your risk of stroke. In more severe cases, a procedure should be done to reopen the carotid artery. At MedStar Health, we have experienced neurosurgeons who specialize in the treatment of carotid artery stenosis and offer the safest, most effective treatments possible to keep you healthy and lower your risk of stroke.
Have questions for our heart and vascular program? Email us at AskMHVI@medstar.net.