Health Library

Categories > Heart Health > Heart disease: Causes and risks

Keeping your carotid arteries free and clear

When fatty deposits and plaque buildup cause your arteries to stiffen, narrow and promote blood clots, you know you’re headed for health trouble. When this atherosclerosis occurs in your carotid arteries—the two main blood vessels that carry blood to your brain—you have carotid artery disease and a significantly higher risk for stroke. Stroke ranks as the third-leading cause of death in the United States, and survivors often suffer lasting damage and permanent disabilities. But you can take steps to keep your carotid arteries healthy and head off a stroke before it happens.

Take preventive measures

Getting regular exercise and eating a healthy diet to keep your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol at optimum levels go a long way toward arterial health. You must also quit smoking and learn how to cope with stress. In addition, you may need medication to keep diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure under control.

Heed warning signs

Carotid artery disease may cause symptoms such as weakness or numbness on one side of the face, arm or leg; slurred speech; loss of vision in one or both eyes; loss of coordination; and loss of consciousness. When these symptoms disappear within 24 hours, the episode is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or mini-stroke. Although mini-strokes don’t seem to cause lasting damage, they’re often signs of worse things to come and mustn’t be ignored, so see your doctor. One in three people who have a TIA eventually have a stroke, half of them within one year.

Not everyone with carotid artery disease shows symptoms. Your doctor may detect a telltale sign during a routine exam. By listening through a stethoscope placed on your neck, he or she can hear an abnormal whooshing sound your blood makes as it squeezes past deposits in the carotid artery, indicating a blockage.

If you have any of these signs, your doctor will likely have you undergo a painless ultrasound exam to check for and examine any narrowing in your carotid arteries.

Seek treatment

Your treatment can include:

  • Medication. If you have a less than 50 percent blockage, you may first try antiplatelet or anticoagulant drugs such as daily aspirin or warfarin.
  • Endarterectomy. In this procedure, surgeons remove the fatty deposits and plaque from the artery. Your doctor may suggest surgery if you have more than 60 percent blockage or have already suffered TIAs or stroke.
  • Angioplasty and stenting. This procedure is sometimes used for patients whose other health problems make surgery too risky. A long hollow tube called a catheter is passed into the narrowed artery. A balloon at the catheter’s tip is inflated to open the blockage. A stent, or wire-mesh scaffold, may be inserted to keep the artery open.