Is Carotid Artery Disease Treatable?
Many people with carotid artery disease aren't aware they have it until they have a stroke as a result. That's certainly not how you want to find out, so it's important to pay close attention to your health, know the risk factors, and get screened for carotid artery disease if you exhibit any.
Carotid artery disease is a buildup of plaque within the carotid arteries — blood vessels located on either side of the neck that carry blood to the brain. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, calcium, fat and other substances traveling through the bloodstream. The plaque buildup can cause narrowing or blockage within the arteries, which is called atherosclerosis.
If some of that plaque breaks off, it can form a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the brain, resulting in a stroke. Blood carries oxygen to the brain, and if the brain is cut off from oxygen for even a few minutes, brain cells start dying. Though the day-to-day of living with carotid artery disease might not come with symptoms, the primary concern is the risk of stroke. Plaque buildup gets worse over time, so the earlier you are aware of the condition, the better.
Symptoms and Risk Factors of carotid artery disease
Unfortunately carotid artery disease does not have noticeable symptoms, and therefore many people do not know they have it until they have had a stroke. There are, however, risk factors to be aware of, including:
- Age 55+
- Smoking (past or present)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, or stroke
Because people with carotid artery disease don't experience regular discomfort or pain, it's even more important to get screened if you exhibit one or more of the risk factors listed above. Carotid artery disease is a major risk factor for strokes, so knowing you have it is a significant step in preventing a medical emergency.
Can carotid artery disease be cured?
Typically, the primary goal for carotid artery disease treatment is not to be "cured," but to prevent further plaque buildup (and therefore a stroke). If the blockage is severe, however, your doctor may recommend one of two surgical options to open up the arteries or remove the plaque.
- Carotid Angioplasty and Stenting: To open up the arteries, a procedure called carotid angioplasty and stenting can be used, which allows the doctor to use a tiny balloon catheter to open up the artery and insert a small mesh tube to keep the pathway open.
- Carotid Endarterectomy: Only in the most serious cases does a doctor recommend surgery to remove the plaque, but this procedure is called a carotid endarterectomy. An incision is made at the site of the buildup, the plaque is removed from the inside of the artery, and the vessel is stitched back up, restoring proper blood flow.
Living with Carotid Artery Disease
If you discover you have carotid artery disease but the blockage is not severe, your doctor will likely recommend some lifestyle changes and possibly medication to prevent further buildup and lower your risk of having a stroke.
You can live a normal life with carotid artery disease -- as previously mentioned, most people don't even experience symptoms. But it's critical that you be proactive about your health now to avoid an emergency later. Here are some of the lifestyle changes and medications your doctor might suggest if you are diagnosed with carotid artery disease:
- Stop smoking. If you are smoking and have carotid artery disease, it is critical you quit as soon as possible. Smoking increases your risk of plaque buildup by raising your cholesterol and blood pressure as well as damaging the smooth lining of the artery, contributing to more buildup. Studies show that even 20 minutes after your last cigarette, your body begins to heal — even if you've smoked for years.
- Eat foods low in cholesterol, saturated fats and sodium
- Lower your alcohol consumption (high alcohol consumption contributes to high blood pressure and obesity)
- Exercise regularly (being physically active lowers your blood pressure, your risk of diabetes, your cholesterol and even raises your HDL — "good cholesterol" — levels)
- Medication to treat high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes
- Medication to prevent clotting, like aspirin
When should I get screened for carotid artery disease?
If you're aged 55 or over, you should get screened for carotid artery disease as soon as you can. If you are aged 40+ and exhibit two or more risk factors — or if you just want to be proactive about your health — get screened. Life Line Screening offers non-invasive ultrasound screenings that can empower you to be knowledgeable about your health and move forward confidently.
Stroke Warning Signs
Though carotid artery disease does not come with symptoms, strokes have significant warning signs. Knowing these signs can be life-saving for you or a loved one, so it's important to keep them in mind. If you or a loved one are experiencing these symptoms, call 911 immediately.
- Face drooping: Sudden numbness in the face, arm, or leg — especially on one side of the body — is a common sign of stroke. If you are concerned this might be the case for someone, ask them to smile and determine whether the smile is lopsided or uneven.
- Arm weakness: The sudden numbness could be evident in a person's arm, so asking someone to raise their arms is a good way to determine this warning sign. Observe whether one arm drifts downward.
- Speech: Slurred speech is another common warning sign. If the person is hard to understand or unable to speak, they might be having a stroke.
- Time: If a person shows any of these symptoms, it's time to call 911.
- Other related symptoms include sudden confusion, sudden trouble seeing, sudden trouble walking, sudden dizziness or sudden severe headache with no known cause.
The Bottom Line
Most people are not aware they have carotid artery disease until they have a stroke. Don't let a lack of knowledge lead to a medical emergency. Schedule a screening today with Life Line Screening and take ownership of your health.