The carotid arteries carry blood filled with oxygen and nutrients from the heart to the brain. You have two such arteries, one on either side of your neck, just below your jaw. These arteries can become clogged with a fatty plaque, reducing blood flow and leading to potentially serious complications. This condition is called carotid occlusive disease.
At Comprehensive Vascular Care, with locations in Novi and Southfield, Michigan, our board-certified vascular surgeons have over 20 years of experience treating carotid occlusive disease with advanced surgical techniques. They also help you lower your risk factors for stroke and other circulatory system complications. Here’s what you need to know about carotid occlusive disease and what we can do to treat it.
Causes of carotid occlusive disease
Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis, colloquially referred to as “hardening of the arteries.”
An unhealthy diet and/or high blood pressure can damage your artery walls. As a result, fats, cholesterol, proteins, calcium, and cell debris start to build up on the roughened surface, forming a plaque — atherosclerosis. When the plaque hardens, your arteries narrow, preventing sufficient blood flow to the tissues. In addition, the plaque can rupture, forming a clot that can obstruct blood flow either partially or completely.
Atherosclerosis is often described in relation to the heart, but it can affect arteries anywhere in the body, including the carotid arteries. If you have a partial disruption in blood flow, it’s called carotid stenosis; if you have a complete blockage, it’s 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
- Have high cholesterol levels
- Have a family history of the disease
- Are a smoker
Knowing your risks can help you get medical treatment before it becomes a crisis.
Symptoms of and complications from carotid occlusive disease
Atherosclerosis, like high blood pressure, is often called a “silent killer,” since it doesn’t produce noticeable symptoms until you reach a crisis point. However, you do get warning signs of an impending stroke.
A transient ischemic attack (TIA), or “mini-stroke,” is an important indicator of a major stroke to come. A TIA occurs when a blood clot transiently blocks a carotid artery, cutting off blood to the brain. Symptoms can last for a few minutes to a few hours, and you may have a single one or any combination. They include:
- Blurred vision in one or both eyes
- Sudden vision loss
- Weakness and/or numbness along one side of the body
- Coordination loss
- Slurred speech
- Difficulty understanding others
- Difficulty swallowing
- Dizziness or confusion
A TIA is a life-threatening medical emergency, since it’s impossible to tell if a major stroke will follow. However, a person who’s experienced a TIA is 10 times more likely to suffer a major stroke than someone who hasn’t, so if you experience symptoms, call 911 immediately!
A major stroke is considerably more serious than a TIA. The brain can’t store oxygen, so it relies on the carotid arteries to supply oxygen-rich blood. When a blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked or ruptures, the lack of nutrients causes surrounding tissues to starve. When they’ve been without oxygen for more than 3-4 minutes, they begin to die, and you lose brain function.
How is carotid occlusive disease treated?
Treatment depends on how badly blocked your carotid arteries are. Your Comprehensive Vascular Care physician may start you on medication therapy to lower both your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. If you have diabetes as well, you’ll probably need medications to help manage your blood sugar levels, as high sugar can cause blood vessel damage.
If medications aren’t effective, your doctor determines if you’re a candidate for surgery. We routinely perform two procedures for carotid occlusive disease:
- We place a stent to hold the artery open and ensure proper blood flow
- We use a balloon angioplasty to widen the artery and improve circulation
No matter what other treatment you receive, we always also recommend lifestyle changes such as improving your diet, getting enough exercise, and, of course, stopping smoking.
If you’re at risk for carotid occlusive disease, it’s time you came into Comprehensive Vascular Care for an evaluation and treatment. Call our office at either of our locations, or schedule your consultation online today.