Screening For Carotid Artery Disease Stroke

A stroke, or cerebrovascular accident, occurs when the blood stops flowing to the brain. Permanent brain damage and muscle weakness can result, and in some cases, strokes can be fatal. The American Heart Association (2010) reports that roughly 795,000 Americans experience a stroke each year, making it the third most common cause of death in the United States.

Two principal causes of stroke exist: atrial fibrillation and carotid artery disease, both of which can be detected through health screening.

What is Carotid Artery Disease?

Carotid artery disease develops when the arteries that deliver blood to the brain—located on each side of the neck—become stiff and narrow due to the accumulation of plaques. Made up of cholesterol, calcium, fibrous tissue and other debris, plaques build up at weak spots inside your blood vessels. “Atherosclerosis” is the medical term for plaque buildup that leads to carotid artery disease.

Why is Carotid Artery Disease Screening Important?

Carotid artery disease can increase your risk of stroke in three ways:

  • Blood clot blockage: When plaques crack, your body sends platelets to the area to repair them. The resulting blood clot can interfere with blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke.
  • Reduced blood flow: Carotid artery disease can narrow your blood vessels and limit blood flow to the brain, leading to a stroke.
  • Ruptured plaque: A piece of plaque can break off and get stuck in a smaller artery, cutting off blood flow to the brain, thereby causing a stroke.

Most often, carotid artery disease doesn’t reveal any symptoms before conditions worsen enough to cause a mini- or full-fledged stroke. This is why doctors frequently recommend health screening for the disease.

Health Screening for Carotid Artery Disease

The first health screening test for carotid artery disease usually involves your doctor listening to your carotid arteries with a stethoscope. Carotid artery disease causes the arteries to make a distinctive “whooshing” sound, called a “bruit.”

The most common kind of diagnostic health screening for carotid artery disease is a carotid ultrasound. This painless, non-invasive health screening test shows artery structure and how well blood is moving through your arteries.

What to do After Your Health Screening Test

Health screening for carotid artery disease offers patients an opportunity to stop the progress of the disease and prevent a stroke through medication, surgery or even certain lifestyle changes, including:

  • Following a healthy diet to lose weight, lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol
  • Increasing your physical activity
  • Quitting smoking.

Medications like aspirin and clopidogrel can prevent blood clots in your brain that could cause a stroke. In severe cases of carotid artery disease, your doctor may recommend surgery to clear the plaque out of your arteries, and/or insert a stent to keep the artery open.

Resources

American Heart Association. (2010). Impact of stroke.Retrieved November 4, 2010, from http://www.strokeassociation.org/STROKEORG/AboutStroke/Impact-of-Stroke_UCM_310728_Article.jsp

Life Line Screening. (n.d.). Carotid artery disease. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from http://www.lifelinescreening.com/disease-information/carotid-artery-disease.aspx?WT.svl=2

Mayo Clinic. (2010). Carotid artery disease. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/carotid-artery-disease/DS01030

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. (2010). Who is at risk for carotid artery disease? Retrieved October 12, 2010, from http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/catd/catd_whoisatrisk.html

Sobieszczyk, P. & Beckman, J. (2006). Carotid artery disease. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/114/7/e244