What is carotid artery disease?
The blood is delivered to the brain and the head through the carotid arteries. When plaques (fatty deposits) begin to clog the blood vessels in these arteries, this can cause a blockage, which is referred to as carotid artery disease. It is a slow-developing condition but it is one of the major causes of stroke, causing between 10-20% of strokes.
What causes carotid artery disease?
Carotid artery disease is caused by buildup of plaques in the arteries delivering blood to the brain and head. Plaques are made up of debris, including calcium build-up, cholesterol, and other cells and tissues. The risk of developing carotid artery disease is increased if you have:
- High blood pressure
- High blood-fat levels
- A history of it in the family, or coronary artery disease
- Sleep apnoea
Other risk factors include obesity, lack of exercise, and age. If you smoke, you are also at greater risk of developing carotid artery disease.
What are the symptoms of carotid artery disease?
Carotid artery disease may not produce any symptoms at first. The first indication of carotid artery may in fact be a stroke, or something called a transient ischaemic attack (TIA), which is a temporary shortage of blood to the brain. The FAST test indicates the warning signs of a stroke:
- Face: has the face fallen on one side? Can they smile?
- Arms: can they raise their arms and hold them there?
- Speech problems: is speech slurred? Can they understand what you’re saying to them? Can they speak clearly?
- Time: the signs above indicate it’s time to call 999.
Other symptoms of stroke can also present, including sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, sudden blurred vision, sudden loss of sight in one or both eyes, a sudden severe headache, and a sudden loss of memory or sudden confusion. In a TIA, symptoms are similar, but they only last for a short time.
What is the treatment for carotid artery disease?
Treatment for carotid artery disease focusses on preventing stroke and TIA. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes which slow down the progression of the condition if the blockage is mild. Medication may also be prescribed in order to control blood pressure and/or cholesterol. If the blockage is more severe, then a procedure may be required to remove it, especially if you have already had a stroke.
A carotid endarterectomy is most commonly used to remove the blockage and treat carotid artery disease. This involves opening the artery and removing the blockage. However, in some cases surgery may be considered too much of a risk, or the blockage is difficult to remove. In these cases, carotid angioplasty may be recommended, wherein a balloon is entered into the artery through a catheter and inflated to widen the artery. A stent is then inserted to stop the artery narrowing.
Can carotid artery disease be prevented?
You can prevent or slow down the progression of carotid artery disease by making sure to exercise, eating a varied and healthy diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables, reducing or limiting your salt consumption, your cholesterol and fat consumption, and by maintaining a healthy weight.
Which specialist treats carotid artery disease?
A cardiologist treats carotid artery disease, though a surgeon may be involved if surgical procedures are necessary.