Carotid arteries are two major arteries, one on each side of the neck, which supply blood to the brain. Over a period of time, material called plaque can build up on the inside of the walls of these arteries, causing the opening to narrow. Plaque is composed of cholesterol, calcium, and fibrous tissue, along with other components of the blood. This narrowing is referred to as carotid artery stenosis and is considered a partial blockage of the brain's blood supply. The blockage caused by a buildup of carotid artery plaque can lead to a stroke.
Until the plaque builds up to a certain point, the patient is unlikely to experience any symptoms. The first sign that may alert the patient and doctor of a serious problem in this area is a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or mini-stroke. A sign of a TIA is an abrupt loss of sensation or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, usually affecting one side of the body. Other symptoms include slurred speech or an abrupt blindness in one eye. Anyone having these signs of a stroke should go the emergency room for prompt medical intervention.
The main cause for concern relating to the buildup of carotid artery plaque is the risk of stroke, which may result from three different scenarios. The opening within the arteries can become so narrow that parts of the brain do not receive an adequate supply of blood. Another problem is that a part of the plaque can break off and clog one of the smaller arteries in the brain, completely impeding the blood supply to that area. The third way for a stroke to occur is for a blood clot to form around a crack in the plaque, which can totally block the blood flow.
If the build-up of carotid artery plaque is mild to moderate, lifestyle modifications and drugs may prevent the occurrence of a stroke. Patients are advised to quit smoking, lose weight, and engage in a regular exercise program. Eating a healthy diet, part of which involves limiting sodium, is recommended. It's important to address chronic issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes. Aspirin or blood-thinning medications may be prescribed to avoid the formation of blood clots.
In serious cases of the carotid artery plaque buildup, further medical procedures may be necessary to restore blood flow. A carotid endarterectomy is the most frequently used method of intervention for such instances. It involves the surgical removal of the plaque within the occluded artery. Another option is carotid angioplasty and stenting. This procedure involves the insertion of a mesh device within the artery to prevent it from narrowing.