Carotid artery disease occurs when the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the brain become narrowed.

As with other vascular diseases, narrowing of the carotid arteries is most commonly caused by atherosclerosis, sometimes referred to as hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is a gradual process in which cholesterol accumulates to form a plaque that clogs the blood vessels.

Carotid artery disease can cause a stroke if blood flow is cut off, leading brain cells to die and impairing body parts that those brain cells control. A stroke can cause lasting brain damage, paralysis or death.

Learn more about the connection between heart attacks and strokes arrows

Carotid artery disease develops slowly and often goes unnoticed before there are any symptoms. However, carotid artery disease can cause symptoms similar to a stroke, called transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. TIA symptoms can last for a few minutes or as long as an hour and include: 

  • Sudden weakness, numbness or tingling on one side of the face or body, or in a single limb
  • Difficulty speaking or slurred speech
  • Change in vision, such as losing all or partial vision in an eye
  • Imbalance
  • Confusion

If you experience a TIA, you may be at high risk for an impending stroke and should contact your physician immediately.

What are causes of carotid artery disease?

In most cases, carotid artery disease is caused by atherosclerosis. Risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of hardening of the arteries

Less common causes of carotid artery disease are fibromuscular dysplasia, carotid artery dissection and carotid aneurysms.

What to expect at your medical exam

Your vascular specialist will try to determine if you have carotid artery disease and if so, the best treatment for you. Your consultation will include questions about your symptoms and your general health. The vascular surgeon will also conduct a physical exam, including listening for a bruit, an abnormal sound related to blood circulation which can signal narrowing of the artery.

If appropriate, your physician may order a carotid duplex ultrasound, a noninvasive ultrasound test to measure the degree of narrowing in the arteries of your neck. Other tests may be needed to complete a diagnosis, including magnetic resonance angiography (MRA), computerized tomographic angiography (CTA) or conventional angiography.

What are treatment options for carotid artery disease?

Based on your symptoms and the severity of the blockage, your vascular specialist will recommend treatment. A less severe condition may be treated with lifestyle modifications, medication and monitoring. Surgery may be recommended for more severe cases. Both traditional open and minimally invasive options are available at Inova Heart and Vascular Institute. Learn more about treatment for carotid artery disease arrows

Inova Heart and Vascular Institute experience

Significant improvements have been made in the diagnosis of carotid artery disease and other vascular diseases in the past few years, and Inova Heart and Vascular Institute has been at the forefront of those innovations.

Learn about the exceptional experience of the Inova Heart and Vascular physicians and their work with carotid artery disease arrows