Carotid Artery Disease

What is Carotid Artery Disease?

Carotid artery disease occurs when fatty deposits build up inside the carotid arteries – the two large blood vessels in the neck that supply the brain with blood. This causes a narrowing or blockage that can reduce blood flow to the brain, increasing the risk of stroke.

Carotid artery disease develops slowly. If it increases to the point that a carotid artery is blocked, or blood flow is otherwise seriously reduced, a stroke can occur. This medical emergency deprives the brain of oxygen and – within minutes to hours – can lead to significant disability or even death.

Baptist Health is known for advanced, superior care for patients with heart disease and the diagnosis, management and treatment of carotid artery disease. You will appreciate timely appointments and a professional, friendly atmosphere where we take time to listen to your concerns. At Baptist Health, you have access to the region’s most comprehensive, multidisciplinary team of specialists and innovative therapies, including many available only through specialized clinical trials. In every way, we work to demonstrate the utmost in excellent care to those who trust us with their health.

Carotid Artery Disease Signs and Symptoms

Many people with carotid artery disease don’t experience symptoms until the disease becomes severe and leads to a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.

Symptoms of a stroke or TIA include:

  • Slurred or garbled speech and/or difficulty understanding speech
  • Sudden dizziness or loss of balance
  • Sudden numbness, weakness or drooping in the face or limb (often on one side)
  • Sudden, severe headache
  • Vision problems in one or both eyes that come on abruptly

While a TIA is a temporary interruption of blood flow to part of the brain that resolves without causing brain cell death, it may precede a much more serious, and possibly life-threatening, stroke.

Carotid Artery Disease Diagnosis

To diagnose carotid artery disease, we ask questions about your medical history and do a physical exam. We then use advanced diagnostic procedures and technology to effectively diagnose, perform treatment and carefully monitor the condition. Common diagnostic procedures can include:

Computed tomographic angiography (CT): This non-invasive test can show the arteries in the neck, abdomen, pelvis and legs. This test is particularly useful in patients with pacemakers or stents.

Magnetic resonance angiogram (MRA): A large magnet, radio waves and a computer can produce pictures of specific blood vessels (veins and arteries).

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): A large magnet, radio waves and a computer are used to produce pictures of the heart and blood vessels.

Physical examination: A physician will test physical and mental capabilities, look for signs of stroke or TIA (like a drooping smile, limb weakness, slurred speech or vision problems), and listen with a stethoscope for a swooshing sound over the carotid artery in the neck, which would indicate narrowing.

Ultrasound: An ultrasound device can measure blood pressure on various points of your arm or leg, which will help the physician determine if you have any blockages and how quickly blood flows through your arteries.

Carotid Artery Disease Causes

Carotid artery disease is caused by a buildup of fatty deposits. Many lifestyle factors can lead to this condition, including: 

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol and/or triglycerides
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Smoking 

Risk Factors

Risk factors that could contribute to carotid artery disease include:

Age: As a person gets older, arteries become less flexible and more prone to injury.

Family history: The risk of carotid artery disease is increased if a close relative has atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries), carotid artery disease or coronary artery disease.

While not all cases of carotid artery disease can be prevented, there are ways to reduce your risk, including:

Don’t smoke: If you do smoke, quitting can reduce your blood pressure.

Eat a healthy diet: Eating a diet low in saturated fat, salt and refined sugar and high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats (like nuts and avocados) and lean protein can reduce your cholesterol and blood pressure and keep you at a healthy weight.

Exercise: Regular exercise reduces your chances of becoming obese and/or developing high blood pressure.

Lose weight: Obesity increases your risk of high blood pressure and many diseases so maintaining a healthy weight is very important.

Take prescribed medications: If you have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol – and you’ve been prescribed a medication to manage the condition – take it as directed.

Carotid Artery Disease Prognosis

Prognosis for carotid artery disease depends on whether a stroke has occurred and the severity of that stroke. If carotid artery disease is diagnosed before a stroke occurs, medical or surgical management is possible.

Treatment and Recovery

If blockage is mild to moderate, treatment for carotid artery disease may include:

Lifestyle Changes

Quitting smoking, losing weight, eating healthy foods, reducing salt and exercising regularly may reverse or halt the progress of carotid artery disease.


Medications to control blood pressure, lower cholesterol, manage diabetes and/or thin the blood to prevent clots may be prescribed.


If blockage is severe, or a TIA or stroke has occurred, treatment for carotid artery disease may include:

  • Carotid angioplasty and stenting: While you are sedated and under local anesthesia, a tiny balloon is threaded by catheter into the artery where the blockage is. The balloon is inflated to widen the artery, and a small wire mesh coil (stent) is inserted to keep the artery from narrowing again.
  • Carotid endarterectomy: This surgery removes plaque from a blocked neck artery, which helps blood flow more freely to the brain and reduces the chance of stroke.

Recovery After Surgery

Depending on how your body heals, you will be in the hospital for a day after your carotid angioplasty and recover well within one to two days. You will be in the hospital one to three days after a carotid endarterectomy and should feel fully recovered in two to three weeks.


The most serious complication of carotid artery disease is a stroke, which can cause brain cell death, significant disability and even death.

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