Is Carotid Artery Disease Painful?
The good news about carotid artery disease is that it actually does not cause pain or discomfort for most people. The bad news is that, as a result, most people with carotid artery disease don't know they have it.
Carotid artery disease is the buildup of plaque in the carotid arteries, which are located on either side of the neck and carry blood to the brain. Plaque is made up of cholesterol, fat, calcium and other substances that travel through the bloodstream, and plaque buildup hinders blood flow through the vessel. If the plaque breaks off and forms a blood clot, it can block blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke.
That's why many people don't know they have carotid artery disease until they have a stroke, which is certainly not how you want to find out.
How do I know if I have carotid artery disease?
The best way to prevent a stroke due to carotid artery disease is to be proactive, and that means getting familiar with your health. The most accurate way to determine whether you have carotid artery disease is by getting a non-invasive, simple ultrasound screening. Knowing when to get screened depends on your individual risk factors.
While there are no symptoms of carotid artery disease, there are several risk factors to consider:
- Age 55+
- Smoking (past or present)
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of cardiovascular disease, heart disease, or stroke
If you're aged 55 or over, or if you're 40+ and exhibit more than one risk factor, it's important to get screened for carotid artery disease. (If you are 40+ without risk factors but want to be more proactive about your health, you can also talk to your doctor to see if a carotid artery disease screening would be right for you.)
The Silent Risk of Carotid Artery Disease
Unfortunately carotid artery disease develops silently, without noticeable symptoms, and many people do not know they have it until they've experienced the medical emergency of a stroke. Because strokes can be life-threatening, it's important to know the warning signs. If you or a loved one are experiencing the symptoms below, call 911 immediately.
- Face drooping: Sudden numbness in the face, arm, or leg — especially on one side of the body — is a common sign of stroke. If you are concerned this might be the case for someone, ask them to smile and determine whether the smile is lopsided or uneven.
- Arm weakness: The sudden numbness could be evident in a person's arm, so asking someone to raise their arms is a good way to determine this warning sign. Observe whether one arm drifts downward.
- Speech: Slurred speech is another common warning sign. If the person is hard to understand or unable to speak, they might be having a stroke.
- Time: If a person shows any of these symptoms, it's time to call 911.
- Other related symptoms include sudden confusion, sudden trouble seeing, sudden trouble walking, sudden dizziness or sudden severe headache with no known cause.
Treating Carotid Artery Disease
If you discover you have carotid artery disease but the blockage is not severe, your doctor will likely recommend some lifestyle changes and possibly medication to prevent further buildup and lower your risk of having a stroke.
You can live a normal life with carotid artery disease -- as previously mentioned, most people don't even experience symptoms. But it's critical that you be proactive about your health now to avoid an emergency later. Here are some of the lifestyle changes and medications your doctor might suggest if you are diagnosed with carotid artery disease:
- Stop smoking. If you are smoking and have carotid artery disease, it is critical you quit as soon as possible. Smoking increases your risk of plaque buildup by raising your cholesterol and blood pressure as well as damaging the smooth lining of the artery, contributing to more buildup. Studies show that even 20 minutes after your last cigarette, your body begins to heal — even if you've smoked for years.
- Eat foods low in cholesterol, saturated fats and sodium
- Lower your alcohol consumption (high alcohol consumption contributes to high blood pressure and obesity)
- Exercise regularly (being physically active lowers your blood pressure, your risk of diabetes, your cholesterol and even raises your HDL — "good cholesterol" — levels)
- Medication to treat high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes
- Medication to prevent clotting, like aspirin
In cases of severe blockage, your doctor may recommend one of two surgery options. To open up the arteries, a procedure called carotid angioplasty and stenting can be used, which allows the doctor to use a tiny balloon catheter to open up the artery and insert a small mesh tube to keep the pathway open.
Only in the most serious cases does a doctor recommend surgery to remove the plaque, but this procedure is called a carotid endarterectomy. An incision is made at the site of the buildup, the plaque is removed from the inside of the artery, and the vessel is stitched back up, restoring proper blood flow.
The Bottom Line
Carotid artery disease is not painful to live with, but a significantly increased risk of stroke makes it critical to know whether or not you have it. If you are aged 55+ or exhibit any of the risk factors for carotid artery disease listed above, you should get screened as soon as you can.
Life Line Screening offers non-invasive ultrasound screenings to empower you to take control of your health and move forward confidently. Don't let a lack of awareness about your health lead to a medical emergency. Schedule a screening today.