The carotid arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart to the brain. You have one on each side of your neck, just below the angle of your jaw. When these arteries become clogged, blood flow diminishes, leading to potentially serious complications. This is known as carotid occlusive disease or carotid stenosis.
At Comprehensive Vascular Care, our board-certified vascular surgeons have over 20 years experience diagnosing carotid occlusive disease and treating it with advanced surgical techniques. They also help you reduce your risk factors for stroke and other health complications. Here’s what you need to know about how the disease gets started and what we can do to treat it.
Causes of carotid occlusive disease
Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis, which is colloquially called “hardening of the arteries.”
With atherosclerosis, fats, cholesterol, calcium, proteins, and cellular debris start to build up on your artery walls, forming plaque. As the plaque hardens, your arteries start to narrow, preventing adequate blood flow to the tissues. The plaque can also rupture, leading to a blood clot that obstructs blood flow partially or completely.
Although atherosclerosis is often described in relation to the heart, it can actually affect arteries anywhere in your body. That includes the carotid arteries, where it causes carotid occlusive disease. A partial disruption in blood flow is known as carotid stenosis; a complete blockage is called a carotid occlusion. Both put you at serious risk for a stroke.
Your risks for carotid occlusive disease increase if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, have a family history of the disease, and/or you’re a smoker.
What are the symptoms of and complications from carotid occlusive disease?
Atherosclerosis is often called a “silent killer,” since it may not produce any noticeable symptoms until you reach a crisis point. However, you do get warning signs of a stroke.
A transient ischemic attack (TIA), also called a “mini-stroke,” is one of the most important warning signs of a major stroke. A TIA happens when a blood clot briefly blocks a carotid artery, cutting off blood supply to the brain. Symptoms are temporary, can last for a few minutes to a few hours, and can occur alone or in any combination. They include:
- Sudden vision loss
- Blurred vision in one or both eyes
- Weakness and/or numbness on any part of one side of the body
- Slurred speech and difficulty talking
- Difficulty understanding others
- Difficulty swallowing
- Coordination loss
- Dizziness or confusion
A TIA is a medical emergency, since it’s impossible to tell if it will progress into a major stroke. If you notice symptoms, call 911 immediately!
While it’s not possible to tell if any particular TIA will develop into a major stroke, a person who’s experienced a TIA is 10 times more likely to suffer a major stroke than someone who hasn’t.
A major stroke is even more serious. Since the brain can’t store oxygen, it relies on the carotid arteries to provide it with oxygen-rich blood. When a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked or ruptures, the lack of blood and oxygen causes surrounding tissues to starve; when they’re without oxygen for more than 3-4 minutes, they begin to die, affecting proper brain function.
Treating carotid occlusive disease
Depending on the extent of the blockage in your carotid arteries, your doctor at Comprehensive Vascular Care may start you on medication therapy to lower both your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If you also have diabetes, you may need medications to help manage your blood sugar levels as well.
When medications aren’t enough, your doctor determines if you’re a candidate for surgery. Two of the procedures we perform routinely are:
- Placing a stent to hold the artery open and ensure proper blood flow
- Performing a balloon angioplasty to widen the artery and improve circulation
We also recommend lifestyle changes such as improving your diet, getting sufficient exercise, and, of course, quitting smoking.
If you have any of the risk factors for carotid occlusive disease, it’s time you came into Comprehensive Vascular Care for an evaluation. Give us a call at either of our locations, or book your consultation online with us today.