Don’t Let a Stroke Be the First Sign You Have Carotid Artery Disease
The good news about carotid artery disease is you can live a normal life without experiencing any symptoms. Unfortunately, that's also the bad news. Many people who have carotid artery disease don't realize they have it until they have a stroke.
In the United States, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds. Every four minutes, someone dies from a stroke. A medical emergency like this is not the best time to find out you have a chronic health condition — especially when there are several ways you can manage it and prevent further damage.
What is carotid artery disease?
Carotid artery disease is a condition in which a buildup of plaque develops 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.
How can carotid artery disease cause a stroke?
According to the CDC, 87% of all strokes are ischemic, which means they are caused by blocked blood flow to the brain. Blood carries oxygen to the brain, and if the brain is cut off from oxygen for even a few minutes, brain cells start dying. Strokes result from carotid artery disease when some of the plaque in the carotid arteries breaks off, forming a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the brain.
Though the day-to-day of living with carotid artery disease might not come with symptoms, the risk of stroke is the primary concern.
Stroke 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.
The American Stroke Association recommends using the "F.A.S.T." acronym to memorize the four primary signs:
- 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.
How to find out you have carotid artery disease before it's an emergency
Now that you understand the risk of unknowingly living with carotid artery disease, you need to determine whether or not you should get screened for it. Plaque buildup gets worse over time — your risk of stroke increasing with it — so the earlier you know, the better.
Older adults are more susceptible to carotid artery disease. If you're 55 or older, you should get screened annually. If you're 40 or older and exhibit one or more risk factors, talk to your doctor about getting screened as well.
As you know, many people with carotid artery disease don't experience symptoms, but there are several risk factors to consider, 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.
Living with carotid artery disease
If you discover you have carotid artery disease, there are several ways you can treat and manage the condition to prevent further health issues. Generally, surgery is not recommended as a solution, but if the blockage is severe, 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.
Most of the time, people with carotid artery disease are advised to make lifestyle changes and are prescribed medication to help prevent further plaque buildup and lower the 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
Life Line Screening's carotid artery screenings are non-invasive, painless ultrasounds. The technician uses the ultrasound machine to create an image of the carotid arteries and determine the level of blockage, if any. You can schedule a screening anytime on our website.
The Bottom Line
It's important to be proactive about your health so that you can understand your risks and take the right steps to move forward confidently and enjoy life to the fullest.