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Three Signs You May Need a Carotid Ultrasound Exam 

What are the Carotid Arteries? 

The carotid arteries are the larger arteries located on either side of the neck. These arteries are responsible for delivering oxygenated blood and essential nutrients to the brain. The carotid arteries are part of the vascular or circulatory system, which is made up of the veins and arteries of the body. 

Anything that limits the function of the carotid arteries can potentially be life threatening since they are such an essential component of the vascular system. Carotid artery disease is a common yet serious condition that affects the carotid arteries. It is characterized by a buildup of plaque within the carotid arteries, which then limits or blocks blood flow. When blood flow to the brain is interrupted, it can cause a stroke.  

Indicators of Carotid Artery Disease 

Plaque buildup within the arteries is caused by excessive fatty deposits. Carotid artery disease is not a sudden onset disease, although the results may be sudden (such as a stroke). However, there are not many symptoms so it can be difficult to detect early on. Instead, your doctor may look for risk factors that could indicate potential carotid artery disease. There are a few major risk factors that usually indicate a carotid artery disease screening is necessary. 

Three signs you may need a carotid artery screening: 

  1. Existing arterial condition such as peripheral artery disease, coronary artery disease, or aortic aneurysm 
  1. High blood pressure and/or tobacco use 
  1. Being 55+ years of age 

Other risk factors include family history, diabetes, obesity, and sleep apnea.  

Carotid Artery Ultrasound 

One of the most efficient ways to determine if a patient has carotid artery disease is a carotid ultrasound exam. This is a type of vascular ultrasound focusing on the carotid arteries. The process uses Doppler technology to generate soundwaves that create images and videos of what is going on inside the body. A carotid artery ultrasound can show both direction and speed of blood flow within the arteries. Physicians can use the exam results to determine if there is a narrowing or blockage within the arteries due to plaque buildup. 

Diagnosing carotid artery disease is the most common use for a carotid ultrasound, however this test has other use cases as well. It can be used for pre- and post-surgical monitoring or to locate blood clots that may have broken off from elsewhere in the bloodstream. 

If your doctor thinks you may be at risk for carotid artery disease, they will likely refer you for a carotid artery ultrasound. The examination process is quick and painless. Here is an overview of a typical ultrasound exam: 

  • Carotid artery ultrasounds are usually performed by Registered Vascular Technologists (RVTs) who are trained to conduct vascular ultrasound exams. 
  • The ultrasound machine consists of three major components; a console, a monitor, and a handheld device called a transducer. 
  • The RVT will apply some gel to the transducer and press it onto the skin. The transducer emits harmless, high-frequency soundwaves that create images of what is happening inside the arteries and veins of the body. 
  • The RVT will view the images and videos on the monitor and look for potential anomalies in the carotid arteries. 
  • Results of the ultrasound exam are then sent to an interpreting physician and then to the referring doctor for final diagnosis.  

The carotid arteries are an essential part of the vascular system, and although carotid artery disease is somewhat common it is still a serious condition. However, it is treatable especially when detected early on. Although initial symptoms are limited for carotid artery disease, there are several risk factors that may prompt your doctor to recommend a carotid ultrasound exam. A carotid artery ultrasound is the most efficient way to diagnose carotid artery disease, and it’s important to remember that ultrasound exams are painless and pose no known health risks. 

Guest Contributor: Jordan Galerkin 

Sources: 

  1. Carotid Artery. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/21492-carotid-artery  
  1. Carotid Artery Disease. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/carotid-artery-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20360519 
  1. Carotid Artery Screening. https://www.radiologyinfo.org/en/info/screening-carotid 
  1. Carotid Ultrasound. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/carotid-ultrasound/about/pac-20393399 
  1. Types of Ultrasound: Doppler vs. Duplex. https://www.ultrasoundquotes.com/blog/doppler-vs-duplex/