What is Carotid Artery Disease?

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A carotid artery stenosis. Image courtesy of Boston Scientific.

The common carotid arteries are on each side of the neck and carry blood from the heart to the head. They divide into the internal carotid artery, which supplies the brain, and the external carotid artery which supplies the face and scalp. The brain is also supplied with blood from the vertebral arteries, which run up the back of the neck.

In extracranial carotid artery disease, one or both internal carotid in the neck develop plaque (also known as atheroma) which causes a detectable partial blockage of the artery. More worryingly, some of this plaque can be covered in clot which may break off and shoot off to the brain, causing a stroke. Large trials have established that the greater the degree of blockage, the higher the risk of stroke.

In some patients, surgery has been shown to reduce the risk of stroke. This is a complicated relationship and whether an operation is appropriate in an particular situation must be discussed with a vascular surgeon.

Whether or not, or however surgery is performed, it is essential that patients continue to look after their health and reduce the ongoing risk of stroke by following a healthy lifestyle, taking medication as recommended, and be vigilant for the signs of a stroke. The most common and recognisable signs of stroke are:

  • Facial weakness - this may include a droopy eyelid, cheek or lip on one side of the face.
  • Arm or Leg weakness - the arm, leg, or both on one side of the body may become weak or numb.
  • Speech disturbance - this includes loss of the ability to speak, or to speak intelligently. Patients may also lose the ability to read or understand what other people are saying.

If these symptoms develop you should call an ambulance or present immediately to hospital, as Time is critical. For more information on recognising stroke and the FAST campaign, please visit the Stroke Foundation website.