There are blood vessels on each side of your neck that are responsible for carrying blood to your brain. These blood vessels, called carotid arteries, can become blocked with a fatty substance known as plaque that leaves you at risk of having a stroke due to insufficient blood and oxygen reaching the brain. Carotid artery disease can affect anyone, but there are risk factors that make it more likely you'll develop the condition, such as smoking, having type 2 diabetes and being obese, all of which can damage the walls of your arteries. High blood-fat levels also increase your risk of developing carotid artery disease, and this is most often seen in those who consume a diet high in fried foods and unhealthy fats. Carotid artery disease can be fatal, and knowing the signs of the condition can help you save your life or the life of another. Here's an overview of the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment for this condition.
In the early stages of carotid artery disease, you won't always have any noticeable symptoms, but common symptoms include dizzy spells, severe headaches and visual disturbances, such as blurred vision or loss of peripheral vision. You may also experience lethargy, muscle weakness and episodes of feeling confused or unable to focus.
Your doctor will make their diagnosis by taking details of your symptoms and conducting a thorough physical exam, which may include asking you to carry out simple exercises to check your reflexes and coordination. Blood samples will be taken to check organ health and determine if your inflammatory markers are raised. You will also undergo a vascular ultrasound, which will allow your doctor to take images of your carotid arteries and determine the extent of the blockage, the exact location of the blockage and whether any surrounding tissue has been damaged.
Your doctor will recommend a treatment approach based on your symptoms and the findings of your ultrasound. You may be prescribed medication to reduce your cholesterol, but as the goal of treatment is to prevent any further build-up of plaque in your carotid arteries, lifestyle alterations will most likely be required. You may be referred to a dietician or smoking cessation nurse, and an occupational health specialist may work with you to develop an exercise plan. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the existing plaque if the narrowing is severe.
If you have any of the symptoms noted above, or if you have concerns about your vascular health, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible, as prompt treatment can significantly reduce your risk of having a stroke.