Keeping Your Finger On The Pulse Of Carotid Artery Disease

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If you’ve felt your pulse at the side of your neck, you’ve detected one of your carotid arteries at work. The carotid arteries are two large blood vessels that serve as the main supply of life-sustaining blood for the brain.

But what happens when these important arteries stop working efficiently? Farah Mohammad, M.D., a vascular surgeon with the Henry Ford Health System, provides an overview of carotid artery disease.

What To Know (And Do) About Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease (or carotid artery stenosis) occurs when the carotid arteries become narrow or blocked. How does this happen, who’s at risk and what can you do? Dr. Mohammad explains.

Plaque: Not Just For Teeth

“The carotid arteries become narrow or blocked with an accumulation of plaque,” states Dr. Mohammad. Unlike the plaque on your teeth and gums, the plaque in your arteries is a buildup of cholesterol. As plaque develops in the carotid arteries, less oxygen-rich blood flows to the brain. It’s also possible for a piece of plaque to break off and block an artery.

Carotid Artery Disease And Stroke: Headed For Trouble?

The greatest risk of carotid artery disease is stroke. Yet, not all people who have carotid artery disease will have a stroke. “Blockages in the carotid arteries can decrease blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke or a mini-stroke,” Dr. Mohammad explains. “But it’s not a given. In fact, strokes can often be prevented with the right medical care and by taking charge of your health.”

Symptoms: From Invisible To Alarming

“Some people with carotid artery disease don’t have symptoms until they have a stroke or transient ischemic attack, also called a TIA or mini-stroke,” remarks Dr. Mohammad. Symptoms of stroke and mini-stroke include:

  • Difficulty speaking
  • Facial droop
  • Losing feeling and function in your arm, leg or face, often on one side of your body
  • Severe headache
  • Sudden confusion
  • Sudden loss of vision

“Mini-strokes, which have symptoms that subside in less than 24 hours or even a few minutes, are not minor events,” cautions Dr. Mohammad. “Mini-strokes can lead to major ones. All stroke symptoms require immediate medical attention, even if the symptoms disappear soon after.”

Treatment: It May Not Be What You Think

“Patients often think carotid artery disease means surgery, and that surgery means a long recovery,” remarks Dr. Mohammad. “But there are new techniques and treatments to manage carotid artery disease.” Dr. Mohammad says that treatment options include medication, such as daily aspirin and cholesterol-reducing medicines, as well as surgery and lifestyle adjustments.

“If surgery is the best option, it may involve removing the plaque during an operation. There’s also a newer technique in which a surgeon places a stent inside the artery. Most people go home the next day and are back to work within a week.”

Risk Factors: Narrowing In On Who’s At Risk

Who is at risk for carotid artery disease? “If you smoke, are overweight or have high blood pressure, diabetes or family history, you could be at risk for carotid artery disease,” advises Dr. Mohammad. “If you have multiple risk factors or have had a stroke or mini-stroke, talk with your provider. Diagnosis typically includes imaging, such as ultrasound or a CT scan.”

Lifestyle Factors: Taking Charge Of Our Health

“You can improve your health through education and lifestyle changes,” says Dr. Mohammad. “Understand your family history and risk factors, and make healthy changes. Stop smoking, control your blood pressure, follow a heart-healthy diet and get daily exercise.”

Dr. Mohammad also emphasizes the importance of following your doctor’s orders. “If you’re taking medication, follow your provider’s instructions. Medication can help stabilize plaque, stop progression of the disease, decrease the risk of death and more.”

 Your Healthcare Team: Getting The Best Care

Dr. Mohammad emphasizes the importance of patient-centered care. “Choose a vascular medicine specialist who understands the latest guidelines for carotid artery disease and takes a multidisciplinary approach,” she says. “That means working with other specialists, such as a neurologist. The goal is to provide the best possible care for you as a whole person.”

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To find a vascular specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (1-800-436-7936).

Dr. Farah Mohammad is a vascular surgeon who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.

Categories: FeelWell