Does the phrase carotid arteries make you think of an episode of CSI or a war movie? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one! Unfortunately, even though the term carotid arteries has found its way into our everyday language, few people actually know what carotid arteries are and what they do.
We say, unfortunately, because keeping the carotid arteries clean and healthy is crucial to your health. Having clogged-up carotids puts you at a much higher risk for strokes. Now that you know that, you may be wondering how you can tell if your carotid arteries are healthy. The answer is yes. Let’s get an inside look at your carotid arteries and how you can know what’s going on in there.
Your carotid arteries run up both sides of your neck and are the main blood vessels that carry blood and oxygen to your brain. The carotid arteries are just like any other arteries in your body. However, they can become clogged with fatty deposits, making it harder for blood to flow through them. The narrowing of a carotid artery can increase the risk of stroke. The narrower the artery, the higher the risk.
What Clogs Up Arteries?
Arteries are like pipes. Have you ever had a sink faucet or a drain start to slow down on you? Maybe even get backed up so much that water can’t flow through? That’s usually caused by a lot of grease, grime, and mineral deposits that get stuck to the walls of the pipe.
Not only does the area for water flow become narrower, but the stuff stuck in there attracts more stuff, which causes a bigger and bigger buildup. The same thing can happen in your arteries. In your arteries, the narrowing is caused by atherosclerosis, a buildup of fatty substances, calcium, and other waste products inside the artery lining.
When this happens, it is called carotid artery disease. Carotid artery disease is like coronary artery disease. You’re probably more familiar with coronary artery disease. It’s the buildup of plaque that occurs in the arteries of the heart and causes a heart attack.
When your carotid arteries narrow, oxygen flow to your brain decreases. Your brain needs a constant supply of oxygen to work. Your brain cells will start to die after just a few minutes without blood or oxygen. When the narrowing of the carotid arteries is severe enough, it can cause a stroke. In addition, if a piece of plaque breaks off the artery walls, it can block blood flow to the brain cause a stroke.
Carotid Artery Sonograms
In the past, there was no way of knowing whether or not your carotid arteries were healthy. However, doctors can look inside your arteries with carotid duplex ultrasound. If the image of a pregnant woman getting a sonogram just came to mind, that’s because it is essentially the same technology.
Carotid ultrasound is a painless and harmless test that uses high-frequency sound waves to create pictures of the insides of the two large carotid arteries in your neck. A carotid ultrasound can show you whether plaque has built up and narrowed your carotid arteries.
If your specialist sees a buildup of plaque, they will determine your risk of stroke by how much plaque there is as well as your personal and family history and other lab results. Then, your doctor may recommend medical or surgical treatments to reduce or remove the plaque to reduce your risk of stroke.
The factors that can increase your risk of atherosclerosis are:
- Old age
- Gender (men have a higher risk)
- Family history
- Genetic factors
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Diet high in saturated fat
- Lack of exercise
Carotid artery disease often has no symptoms. It is often diagnosed after a person has a minor stroke. That’s why getting a carotid artery sonogram if you are at risk is crucial.
When Would a Doctor Recommend a Carotid Artery Sonogram?
Doctors generally recommend carotid ultrasound if you have:
- Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of stroke or heart disease
- Recent transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke
- Coronary artery disease
- Abnormal sound in carotid arteries
Doctors also use carotid artery ultrasounds to:
- Check out how the blood flow is flowing through the artery after surgery to remove plaques
- Evaluate the placement and effectiveness of a stent
- Locate clotted blood that may prevent blood flow
- Find other carotid artery abnormalities that may disrupt blood flow
Carotid Ultrasound 101
Carotid ultrasound is usually performed in a doctor’s office or hospital. The sonogram is painless and usually doesn’t take more than 30 minutes. The ultrasound machine includes a computer, a video screen, and a hand-held device(transducer) that sends and receives ultrasound waves into and from your body.
As you lie on your back on an exam table, your technician will put gel on your neck where your carotid arteries are located. Then they will place the transducer against your neck and move it back and forth. The transducer emits ultrasound waves.
When these waves bounce off artery walls and blood cells, they echo back to the transducer. A computer uses the echoes to create pictures of the insides of your arteries and the blood flowing through them. You can view these images on display in real-time with your technician.
If the doctor who ordered the test is not the person performing the ultrasound, then they will evaluate the recording of the sonogram and get back to you with the results. And, if the test reveals you’re at risk of a stroke, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, medications, or surgical procedures to reduce your risk of stroke.
If the carotid ultrasound was ordered as a follow-up to a surgical procedure, your doctor will look at the results and determine whether the treatment is working or whether you’ll need additional treatment or follow-up exams. At Living Well Dallas, we have access to a full suite of diagnostic equipment to diagnose current conditions and help prevent future ones from developing. Contact us for a consultation today! It’s your life. Live it well!
- Image attribution