Carotid Artery Disease: Causes, Symptoms, Tests, and Treatment
What Are the Symptoms of Carotid Artery Disease?
You may not have any symptoms of carotid artery disease. Plaque builds up in the carotid arteries over time with no warning signs until you have a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke.
Signs of a stroke may include:
- Sudden loss of vision, blurred vision, or difficulty in seeing out of one or both eyes
- Weakness, tingling, or numbness on one side of the face, one side of the body, or in one arm or leg
- Sudden difficulty in walking, loss of balance, lack of coordination
- Sudden dizziness and/or confusion
- Difficulty speaking (called aphasia)
- Sudden severe headache
- Problems with memory
- Difficulty swallowing (called dysphagia)
What Is a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)?
A TIA occurs when there is low blood flow or a clot briefly blocks an artery that supplies blood to the brain. With a TIA, you may have the same symptoms as you would have for a stroke. But the symptoms only last a few minutes or few hours and then resolve.
A TIA is a medical emergency because it is impossible to predict whether it will progress into a major stroke. If you or someone you know experiences any of the above symptoms, get emergency help. Immediate treatment can save your life and increase your chance of a full recovery.
Findings show that someone who has experienced a TIA is 10 times more likely to suffer a major stroke than a person who has not had a TIA.
How Is Carotid Artery Disease Diagnosed?
There are often no symptoms of carotid artery disease until you have a TIA or stroke. That’s why it’s important to see your doctor regularly for physical examinations. Your doctor may listen to the arteries in your neck with a stethoscope. If an abnormal sound, called a bruit, is heard over an artery, it may reflect turbulent blood flow. That could indicate carotid artery disease.
Listening for a bruit in the neck is a simple, safe, and inexpensive way to screen for stenosis (narrowing) of the carotid artery, although it may not detect all blockages. Some experts believe that bruits may be better predictors of atherosclerotic disease rather than risk of stroke. Be sure to let your doctor know if you have had any symptoms, such as those listed above.
Your doctor may also use a test to diagnose carotid artery disease. Possible tests include the following:
- Carotid ultrasound (standard or Doppler). This noninvasive, painless screening test uses high-frequency sound waves to view the carotid arteries. It looks for plaques and blood clots and determines whether the arteries are narrowed or blocked. A Doppler ultrasound shows the movement of blood through the blood vessels. Ultrasound imaging does not use X-rays.
- Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA). This imaging technique uses a powerful magnet to gather accurate information about the brain and arteries. Then a computer uses this information to generate high-resolution images. An MRA can often detect even small strokes in the brain.
- Computerized tomography angiography (CTA). More detailed than an X-ray, a CT uses X-rays and computer technology to produce cross-sectional images of the carotid arteries. Images of the brain can be collected as well. With this imaging test, the scan may reveal areas of damage on the brain. The CT scan uses a low level of radiation.
- Cerebral angiography (carotid angiogram). This procedure is considered the gold standard for imaging the carotid arteries. It is an invasive procedure that lets a doctor see blood flow through the carotid arteries in real time. Cerebral angiography allows the doctor to see narrowing or blockages on a live X-ray screen as contrast dye is injected in the carotid arteries. This procedure provides the best information. It does carry a small risk of serious complications.