The carotid arteries are the two big vessels that go up either side of the neck. Their main function is to carry blood to the brain. Just like the arteries in your arms and legs, these can get narrowed and blocked. This is called carotid artery disease. In this condition, a mixture of fatty substances and blood cells builds up on the inner walls of the carotid artery, slowly reducing the blood flow. A piece of this material can break off and go straight to the brain, causing a stroke. Or a stray clot from elsewhere in the body can lodge there, and cut off blood flow to the brain.
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The only symptoms of carotid artery disease may be transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) or mini-strokes than can affect the face, the arms, vision, or cause brief numbness or confusion, among other effects. (A TIA is not a full-blown stroke, which lasts longer and may have permanent effects if not treated immediately.)
The risk factors for carotid artery disease are smoking, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, any of these combined with advanced age, or a family or personal history of heart or vascular disease. If you already have heart disease or peripheral arterial disease (PAD) you are very much at risk. If you have the risk factors for carotid artery disease, get yourself checked out by a doctor – preferably a vascular specialist.
Tomorrow I will talk about when to treat carotid artery disease.