Carotid Artery Disease

Carotid artery disease, also called carotid artery stenosis or carotid artery occlusive disease, is characterized by the narrowing of the carotid arteries, the main blood vessels for carrying oxygenated blood to the brain. This is most commonly related to atherosclerosis (a build-up of plaque) in the artery. If the narrowing becomes severe enough to block blood flow to the brain, or if a piece of plaque breaks off and obstructs blood flow, a stroke may occur.

The Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery within the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) Heart & Vascular Center provides advanced diagnosis and treatment for patients with carotid artery disease. State-of-the-art techniques, including endovascular treatment of carotid artery disease, are available for our patients. As a regional, national, and international referral center, we have broad experience in managing vascular problems, ranging from the most common to the rare and complex. Twenty-four-hour consultation is available for urgent or emergency problems.

Watch a video about endovascular treatment for carotid artery disease.

Carotid Artery Disease Topics

Risk Factors for Carotid Artery Disease

Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of carotid artery disease, although it is not clear what causes this build-up of plaque. This thickening narrows the arteries and can decrease blood flow or completely block the flow of blood to the brain.

Risk factors associated with atherosclerosis include:

  • Advanced age
  • Male
  • Family history
  • Hyperlipidemia (elevated fats in the blood)
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Diet high in saturated fat
  • Sedentary lifestyle
Symptoms of Carotid Artery Disease

When plaque builds up in the carotid artery, blood flow to the brain may be impaired, increasing your risk of stroke. A stroke is damaged brain tissue caused by a vascular condition. There are many potential warning signs for stroke, including:

  • A sudden weakness or even paralysis of a leg, arm, or hand.
  • Transient (lasting a short time) slurring, garbled, or inappropriate speech.
  • Transient blindness or severe blurring of vision in one eye.
  • A transient, one-sided facial droop.

Other potential warning signs for stroke include blackout spells or severe headaches.

Diagnosis of Carotid Artery Disease

At BWH, our carotid artery disease specialists provide expert evaluation and diagnosis with the aid of the latest in advanced imaging technologies. The presence of a carotid artery narrowing may be suggested by one of the warning signs described above. Many patients, however, will be completely asymptomatic, despite significant narrowing of a carotid artery. In many such patients, a careful physical examination will reveal the presence of an audible bruit (abnormal sound heard through a stethoscope) in the neck, caused by disturbed blood flow through the carotid artery.

When a medical history or physical examination suggests potential carotid artery narrowing, the patient is generally sent for a noninvasive imaging study to evaluate the carotid arteries. These studies may include a duplex ultrasound study or a magnetic resonance angiogram. Both are completely noninvasive and highly accurate tests to determine the presence and extent of carotid artery narrowing. When a carotid artery narrowing of greater than 80 percent is found, consideration for repair of the artery is appropriate. Patients who have had warning signs for stroke and are found to have significantly narrowed carotid arteries are recommended for artery repair. Asymptomatic patients with severe carotid artery narrowing are selectively recommended for intervention based on their age and overall health status.

Treatment for Carotid Artery Disease

Specialists from the Division of Vascular and Endovascular Surgery develop individualized treatment plans for patients based on:

  • Age
  • Overall health
  • Medical history
  • Severity and form of the disease
  • Tolerance for specific medications or procedures
  • Expectations for course of the disease
  • Presence of other conditions

Carotid artery disease (asymptomatic or symptomatic) that involves a less than 50 percent narrowing of the carotid artery is usually treated medically. Along with a modification of lifestyle risk factors, this may include:

Medication

Surgery

For more severe carotid artery narrowing, there are two options. Currently, most patients are recommended standard open surgical treatment of the carotid narrowing:

  • Carotid endarterectomy is performed through a small incision in the neck and involves a "shelling out" of the plaque from the diseased artery. This procedure removes the plaque from the inside of the artery wall and restores normal blood flow through the artery to the brain. The operation is generally well tolerated and involves a one- to two-day hospital stay.

A new, minimally invasive treatment for carotid artery narrowing, which may be offered to patients on a selective basis, is:

  • Balloon stent angioplasty - During this procedure, a very thin wire and a small balloon are guided to the blockage in the vessel. A balloon is inflated to compress the plaque and open up a channel through the blockage. A stent is then placed in the artery to keep the vessel open. This procedure does not require incision in the neck and can be performed through a catheter introduced through the groin artery. This procedure also involves a one-day hospital stay.

After either standard carotid endarterectomy or balloon stent angioplasty, patients are followed with serial duplex ultrasound studies to monitor the progress of their carotid arteries.

What You Can Expect

The Heart & Vascular Center is located in the Shapiro Cardiovascular Center, across the street from BWH’s main 75 Francis Street entrance. The Heart & Vascular Center brings together the full range of services in one location, fostering seamless and coordinated care for all cardiovascular patients.

If you are having surgery or a procedure, you will likely be scheduled for a visit to the Weiner Center for Preoperative Evaluation or the Watkins Clinicfor pre-operative information and tests.

The day of surgery, you care will be provided by surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses who specialize in surgery for patients with carotid artery disease. After surgery, you will go to the post-surgical care unit where you will receive comprehensive care by an experienced surgical and nursing staff.

During your surgery, family and friends can wait in the Shapiro Family Center. Staff members will provide surgery updates and caregivers who leave the hospital will be contacted by cell phone.

Learn more about your hospital stay and returning home.

Multidisciplinary Care

In addition to our vascular and endovascular surgeons, patients also benefit from the teamwork of medical cardiologists, interventional cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, cardiovascular imaging experts and radiologists, and anesthesiologists, all experts in cardiovascular disease. They work alongside nurses, physician assistants, physical therapists, dietitians and social workers to achieve outstanding outcomes for our patients.

Resources

Learn more about carotid artery disease in our health library

Visit the Kessler Health Education Library in the Bretholtz Center where patients and families can access computers and knowledgeable staff.

Access a complete directory of patient and family services.

Visit the Brigham and Women’s Hospital HealthHub Blog, which features information on a variety of topics, including heart disease.

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