Carotid Artery Disease (Part 1 of 3)
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Carotid artery disease occurs when fatty, waxy deposits called plaques clog your carotid arteries. Your carotid arteries are a pair of blood vessels that deliver blood to your brain and head. The buildup of plaques in these arteries blocks the blood supply to your brain and increases your risk of stroke. Because carotid artery disease develops slowly and often goes unnoticed, the first outward clue that you have the condition may be a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA), sometimes referred to as a ministroke. Treatment of carotid artery disease usually involves a combination of lifestyle changes, medications and, in some cases, surgery or a stenting procedure.
In its early stages, carotid artery disease often doesn’t produce any signs or symptoms. You and your doctor may not know you have carotid artery disease until it’s serious enough to deprive your brain of blood, causing a stroke or TIA — an early warning sign of a future stroke.
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 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)
When to see a doctor
Talk to your doctor if you have risk factors for carotid artery disease. Your doctor may do some tests to see what shape your arteries are in. Even if you don’t have any signs or symptoms, your doctor may recommend aggressive management of your risk factors to protect you from stroke.
Seek emergency care if you experience any of the signs or symptoms of a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.
Even if the signs and symptoms last only a short while — usually less than an hour but possibly longer — and then you feel normal, tell your doctor right away. What you may have experienced is a TIA, a temporary shortage of blood flow to a region of your brain. A TIA is an important sign that you’re at high risk of having a full-blown stroke, so don’t ignore it.
Seeing a doctor early increases your chances that carotid artery disease will be detected and treated before a disabling stroke occurs. It’s also possible that a TIA can be due to lack of blood flow in other blood vessels. Your doctor will determine which testing is necessary.
Make sure your close friends and family know the signs and symptoms of stroke and understand that it’s critical to act fast in the event of a possible stroke.