The most serious complication of carotid artery disease is stroke. There are different ways carotid artery disease can increase your risk of stroke:

  • Reduced blood flow. A carotid artery may become so narrowed by atherosclerosis that not enough blood is able to reach portions of your brain.
  • Ruptured plaques. A piece of a plaque may break off and flow to smaller arteries in your brain (cerebral arteries). The fragment may get stuck in one of these smaller arteries, creating a blockage that cuts off blood supply to the area of the brain that the cerebral artery serves.
  • Blood clot blockage. Some plaques are prone to cracking and forming irregular surfaces on the artery wall. When this happens, your body reacts as if to an injury and sends platelets — blood cells that help the clotting process — to the area. A large blood clot may develop in this manner and block or slow the flow of blood through a carotid or cerebral artery, causing a stroke.

A stroke can leave you with permanent brain damage and muscle weakness. In severe cases, it can be fatal.

In case of an emergency

Stroke or TIA — often the first indications of carotid artery disease — is an emergency medical condition. If you or a loved one develops signs or symptoms of a possible stroke, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Don't attempt to drive yourself to the hospital.

Signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the face or limbs, often on only one side of the body
  • The inability to move one or more of your limbs
  • Trouble speaking and understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • A sudden, severe headache with no known cause

If you have risk factors for carotid artery disease, make an appointment with your doctor. He or she may run tests to evaluate the health of your arteries and may recommend treatments and lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of stroke.

Oct. 01, 2011