Because carotid artery disease is a gradual process that slowly blocks the artery, it often doesn’t present any warning signs until the artery is almost totally closed. When blood flow is blocked through the artery, a stroke results. A stroke occurs when brain tissue begins to die because of a lack of oxygenated blood. A stroke or a "mini-stroke" (transient ischemic attack, or “TIA”) might be your first indicator that your carotid arteries are not healthy.
Most of us have headaches or clumsy spells now and then. But the symptoms of a stroke will seem unusual and come on suddenly. Call 911 immediately if you or someone you’re with notices these unexplained, sudden warning signs:
- A feeling of numbness or weakness in your face, arm, or leg (one side might be more affected than the other)
- Vision problems in one or both eyes
- Dizziness or a loss of balance; difficulty walking
- Sudden onset of confusion
- Problems speaking or understanding what other people are saying
- Severe headaches without warning or explanation
Women* (assigned female at birth) may have the same above symptoms as men* (assigned male at birth), but they’ve also reported a few others, which also happen suddenly and unexpectedly:
- Pain in the face or legs
- Feeling weak all over
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
A TIA, or mini-stroke, has symptoms precisely like a stroke, but symptoms of a TIA resolve within 24 hours, many even within one hour. If you experience a TIA, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek medical care since you don’t know if you’re having a stroke or a mini-stroke. Many people who experience a TIA will later have a stroke; therefore, a TIA can serve as a warning and an opportunity to identify carotid artery disease before a more serious medical event occurs.
Your doctor may put a stethoscope on your neck during a physical exam and listen. This simple diagnostic procedure can sometimes detect a whooshing sound called a bruit, similar to the sound of water trying to pass through a kinked garden hose. This sound indicates uneven blood flow through the carotid arteries, which can be caused by the narrowing of those arteries. While a bruit can indicate carotid artery disease, some medical professionals think it may not give as much information as to whether that patient will eventually have a stroke. A bruit, therefore, can be a starting point for a diagnosis, but it must be supplemented by imaging tests that can diagnose carotid artery disease.
*The term “women” in the context of “women’s cardiovascular health” applies to individuals assigned female at birth (AFAB) who have a female biological reproductive system, which includes a vagina, uterus, ovaries, Fallopian tubes, accessory glands, and external genital organs.
*The term “men” in the context of “cardiovascular health” applies to individuals assigned male at birth (AMAB) who have a male biological reproductive system, which includes a penis, scrotum, testes, epididymis, vas deferens, prostate, and seminal vesicles.