A stroke is one of the most widely known - and feared - medical conditions in the world today. You probably know the F-A-S-T pneumonic to identify a stroke, aptly named for the importance of quick medical intervention. But you may not know much about carotid artery disease, the silent killer that contributes to nearly 20% of the 700,000 strokes that will occur this year.
So you can be prepared, here are 5 things to know about carotid artery disease (CAD).
Carotid artery disease restricts blood flow to the brain
When your doctor places a hand on the side of your neck to feel for a pulse, they’re feeling your carotid artery. These major arteries are located on either side of your neck and feed blood to your head and brain. Carotid artery disease occurs when a build-up of fatty deposits known as plaque causes a blockage in your carotid artery, restricting blood flow to the brain.
The first sign of carotid artery disease may be a transient ischemic attack (TIA)
Carotid artery disease develops slowly and may show no noticeable symptoms until you experience a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke. A TIA is a temporary restriction of blood flow to the brain.
Symptoms of a TIA include:
- Numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body
- Difficulty speaking or slurred speech
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Trouble walking or loss of balance
The symptoms of a TIA closely resemble that of a stroke but do not last as long. If you experience any sign of a TIA or stroke, seek medical attention immediately even if you begin to feel better.
Carotid artery disease increases your risk of stroke
Because carotid artery disease restricts blood flow to the brain, it significantly increases your risk of stroke. A stroke deprives your brain of oxygen and can result in permanent brain damage or death in minutes; it is the leading cause of both in the United States.
Carotid artery disease can cause a stroke in two ways. A piece of plaque can break off and become lodged in the brain’s blood vessels, causing an embolism. Less commonly, CAD can become so severe that the carotid artery is blocked completely.
You may be at risk of carotid artery disease
There are risk factors that contribute to a patient’s risk of carotid artery disease. Some are hereditary and health-related, while others are attributed to specific lifestyle choices.
The risk factors for CAD include:
- Smoking increases your blood pressure and heart rate and can irritate the lining of your arteries, causing damage that leads to plaque.
- High Blood Pressure causes increased pressure on your artery walls, causing weakness and damage that contribute to CAD.
- High cholesterol is a major risk factor for carotid artery disease.
- Diabetes affects your body’s ability to process blood sugar and fats, putting you at a higher risk for high blood pressure and plaque build-up.
- Obesity increases your risk of diabetes, carotid artery disease, and high blood pressure.
- Older age causes your arteries to stiffen and become more susceptible to damage.
- Family history. If someone in your family has had carotid artery disease you may be at higher risk yourself.
Lifestyle changes can prevent carotid artery disease
Good news! There are lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk and even manage carotid artery disease. They include:
- Don’t smoke. If you use tobacco, it’s best to quit now. If you’re not a smoker, don’t pick up the habit.
- Exercise regularly. Physical inactivity contributes to obesity and carotid artery disease. Get the recommended amount of exercise each week.
- Eat a balanced diet. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables helps you maintain a healthy weight and gives you essential vitamins and nutrients that may prevent strokes and TIAs.
- Limit fat and cholesterol. This will reduce your risk of atherosclerosis.
- Reduce alcohol consumption.
- Manage health conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol.
If you’re at high risk for carotid artery disease or have experienced a stroke (or stroke-like symptoms) in the past, it’s important to see a vascular specialist like those at Vascular Associates of South Alabama. A vascular physician can help you control the disease through lifestyle changes, medical management, and surgical treatments to keep you in optimal health. If you need to speak to someone about carotid artery disease, contact us today!