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Why You Don’t Want a Build-up of Plaque on Your Carotid Arteries

Posted by Mehran Massumi, M.D. on Jul 18, 2018, 8:13:00 AM

You’ve probably heard of plaque as it relates to your arteries and know it isn’t good. Carotid artery stenosis, or carotid artery disease, is one example of why. 

Carotid artery stenosis occurs when fatty deposits clog the arteries on either side of the neck that deliver blood to the front of the brain, where thinking, speech, personality, and sensory and motor functions are located. Blockage of the carotid arteries increases the risk of stroke with the possibility of permanent disability. 

What Causes Plaque to Build Up?

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Plaque is typically comprised of cholesterol, fat, cellular waste, protein, and calcium. While your diet has a lot to do with arterial plaque buildup, it’s not the only factor. In fact, it’s believed that a major cause of plaque buildup in arteries is smoking, which can raise cholesterol levels and elevate your blood pressure. Speaking of blood pressure, high blood pressure left untreated can damage your arteries, leaving them vulnerable to plaque, so make sure your blood pressure is checked regularly. 

Drinking alcohol in excess is another contributing factor to plaque buildup, as alcohol raises not only your blood sugar, but also the level of fats in your blood. Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle is another risk factor for carotid artery stenosis. 

Because cholesterol is a factor in plaque buildup, making sure you eat foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol can help reduce your chances of developing carotid artery stenosis. 

Carotid Artery Stenosis

As plaque builds up in your carotid arteries, it narrows the passageway your blood uses to travel through your body and may limit the amount of blood and oxygen supply to your brain. Carotid artery stenosis can slow the movement of blood so much that it causes dizziness, fainting, blurred vision, and trouble speaking. Not only that, but the buildup can eventually block the artery off completely causing a stroke.

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There may not be any symptoms of carotid artery disease, especially in the early stages. It often goes unnoticed until it causes a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). If you’re at risk, it’s important to have regular checkups. A doctor will listen to the arteries in your neck with a stethoscope. Diagnostic tests include: 

  • Carotid ultrasound – this allows doctors to see real-time photos of your arteries and locate blockages.
  • Computed tomography – this evaluation technique uses a CT scanner to produce images of the arteries in your neck to check for blockages.
  • Carotid angiography – involves inserting a catheter into a blood vessel in the arm or leg and guiding it to the carotid arteries with a special X-ray machine. Contrast dye is injected through the catheter while X-rays are taken. 

Treatment Options

Carotid artery stenosis is treated by making lifestyle changes to slow the buildup of plaque, taking prescribed medications to lower blood pressure or cholesterol, and having recommended procedures such as carotid stenting or carotid endarterectomy, where a surgeon opens the affected carotid artery and removes the plaques. 

Massumi, Mehran

Dr. Massumi is a board-certified physician who specializes in Cardiology at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus. His clinical interests include coronary artery disease, structural heart disease, abdominal aortic aneurysm repair, peripheral vascular disease, and advanced mechanical circulatory support.


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