Carotid Artery Disease

Each year more than half a million strokes occur in the United States. Approximately 30% of the time, stroke is fatal. Survivors, however, are often left with long-term disabilities such as paralyzed legs and arms, and inability to speak and eat normally. In fact, stroke is the leading cause of disability in our country.

More than half of all strokes are likely due to carotid artery disease. The carotid arteries are two large blood vessels in the front of the neck that carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Like the heart, brain cells need a constant supply of blood. Over time, a build-up of fatty deposits known as plaque can build up on the artery walls, narrowing the passage and blocking the flow of blood to the brain. When this happens, a stroke results. Because it takes place in the brain, stroke is frequently referred to as “brain attack.”

Carotid artery disease is one of the risk factors for stroke. Others include previous stoke/mini stroke, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and smoking. In addition to obstructing the flow of blood to the brain, carotid artery disease increases the risk that a blood clot may become wedged in the artery narrowed by plaque. Also, plaque may break off from the carotid artery and cause a blockage in a smaller artery in the brain.

Because there are no advance warning signs of carotid artery disease, many people don't know that they have it until they experience a TIA (transient ischemic attack) or mini-stroke. The symptoms of a TIA are similar to a full stroke, but they are temporary, usually lasting for a few minutes to a couple of hours. Blurring, dimming or loss of vision, change in speech, tingling around the mouth, numbness in an arm or leg, and sudden severe headache are some of the most common manifestations. If you experience any of these, getting swift medical attention is critical.

Fortunately, you do not have to wait for TIA symptoms to occur to assess your risk for carotid artery disease. If you possess the risk factors for stroke, or have a history in your family, ask your doctor about taking a simple ultrasound examination. It takes less than 30 minutes, is painless, and could save your life! This exam can tell if you have serious plaque build-up. Unless the blockage is severe, there are a number of actions your doctor can recommend to keep plaque build-up from getting worse. These include things such as exercising, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood pressure and stopping smoking.

If blockage is severe, a surgical treatment called carotid endarterectomy might be recommended. In this procedure, an incision is made in the neck and plaque is surgically removed from the carotid artery. Balloon angioplasty, similar to that performed on people with heart disease, is currently being studied to determine its safety and effectiveness.

Remember, stroke can be prevented. Speak with your doctor to assess your risk. If you should experience any of the symptoms of stroke, call 911 and get to the hospital for treatments to reduce the chances of permanent disabilities.

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