Carotid artery disease is a serious condition when the blood vessels in the neck that carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain (carotid arteries) become narrowed and blocked due to a fatty, waxy substance called plaque. These blockages can restrict blood flow to brain tissue or promote a blood clot that cuts off blood flow entirely, causing an ischemic stroke, the most common type of stroke. Less commonly, a blood vessel in the brain can rupture, resulting in bleeding, also known as a hemorrhagic stroke. When blood flow to brain tissue is cut off, that tissue begins to die, resulting in disability or even death.
Every year, more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke, one of the leading causes of death for Americans.1 Identifying and treating carotid artery disease is critical in reducing the risk of a first or recurrent stroke, and learning more about the disease is an early step in working to protect your brain’s health.
Carotid artery disease occurs when the carotid arteries in the front of the neck narrow, limiting oxygen delivery to the brain. Oxygenated blood that travels from the heart passes through a large artery called the aorta through the carotid arteries. The main carotid arteries continue to branch into smaller blood vessels that supply the head and brain with blood.
Narrowing of the carotid arteries is usually caused when plaque builds up on the artery walls. Plaque comprises cholesterol, calcium, fatty substances, and other materials found in the bloodstream. When plaque deposits narrow arteries, this is called atherosclerosis. This process also causes coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack.