What Are Carotid Arteries and Arterial Blockages?
All arteries and veins are crucial to a healthy, fully functioning body and brain. Some of the largest arteries in the body are the carotid ones found in the neck. The left carotid artery branches off the aorta, the body’s largest artery overall. The right carotid artery branches off the brachiocephalic artery. Both arteries flow from the heart. The carotid arteries deliver oxygenated blood to the brain to ensure it functions properly.
Any disruption to this blood flow can cause serious damage to the brain. Blockages within the carotid arteries can cause this type of disruption. Arterial blockages may be caused by the buildup of plaque or excessive fatty deposits. Over time, this plaque buildup causes carotid artery disease. Carotid artery disease is serious because it can lead to a stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA, or mini-stroke, occurs when there is a temporary shortage of oxygen to the brain. A full stroke occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen to the point where the brain cells start to die. Strokes can often lead to permanent paralysis, disability, or death.
Carotid Artery Blockage Symptoms and Diagnosis
The buildup of plaque along the arterial walls can inhibit blood flow by slowing it down or blocking it completely. A blockage within the carotid arteries can be difficult to diagnose because there may not be any symptoms before a TIA or stroke. However, patients should be aware of higher risk factors for arterial blockages and carotid artery disease. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Tobacco use
Symptoms of a TIA or stroke may be sudden numbness, trouble speaking, dizziness, vision impairment, severe headache, and more. Any symptoms of a stroke should be treated as an emergency.
It’s important to note that although there may not be any symptoms of an arterial blockage, there are carotid artery tests to find out. If your doctor thinks you might be at risk for a blockage or carotid artery disease, they may listen to your arteries using a stethoscope. Sometimes, a whooshing sound can be heard within the carotid arteries if there is a partial blockage. However, a carotid duplex ultrasound is a more accurate and common carotid artery screening.
Carotid Artery Duplex Ultrasound
Carotid duplex ultrasound is a Doppler ultrasound exam to diagnose arterial blockages and carotid artery disease. It uses harmless high-frequency soundwaves to create color images and videos of what is happening inside the body. This technology can show the direction and speed of blood flow within the veins and arteries. A Registered Vascular Technologist can quickly and safely perform a carotid duplex ultrasound and assist in identifying abnormalities that could indicate an arterial blockage.
Ultrasound exams are fast, painless, and accurate ways to diagnose arterial blockages. An ultrasound procedure is a noninvasive, outpatient exam often performed by a certified Registered Vascular Technologist. An ultrasound machine consists of a video monitor, console, and handheld device called a transducer. The transducer is the part that emits high-frequency sound waves. The technologist will apply a gel to the skin to eliminate air pockets and then use the transducer to gently press on the skin, which helps compress the arteries and show whether there is a narrowing or a blockage.
Although there may not be symptoms in the early stages of a blockage within the carotid artery, the diagnostic ultrasound exam is fast and painless, with no known health risks. A blockage and the development of carotid artery disease are both serious conditions; however, they are treatable in various ways. These will usually include lifestyle changes and medication. If you think you may be at risk for a blockage of the carotid artery or carotid artery disease, be sure to speak with your doctor.
Guest Contributor: Jordan Galerkin
- Carotid Artery. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/21492-carotid-artery
- Carotid Artery Disease. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/carotid-artery-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20360519
- What are the Symptoms of Blocked Carotid Arteries? Livestrong. https://www.livestrong.com/article/4171048-side-effects-of-a-blocked-carotid-artery/