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Signs of carotid artery disease and stroke

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Stroke is a major cause of disability in the United States, and carotid disease is one of the few treatable causes of stroke. Over time, plaque build-up hardens and narrows the arteries, causing plaque to break off and interrupt the flow of oxygen-rich blood in the brain.

Dr. Eanas Yassa, a vascular surgeon from Spectrum Health, explains how lifestyle changes, medicines, and medical procedures can help prevent or treat carotid artery disease and how to reduce the risk of stroke.

Carotid artery disease is the build up of plaque in the carotid arteries, the two main blood vessels in the neck that supply blood to the brain. Plaque build-up can lead to the the narrowing of an artery, and can even cause complete blockage of an artery.

Risk factors that lead to carotid artery disease include:

  • Age: The arteries become progressively more damaged with age. In women, hormonal changes after menopause are known increase risk.
  • Obesity: Excess weight raises the chances of having high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • Lack of exercise: A lack of exercise can worsen risk factors such as obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
  • Family History: Your risk is greater if another family member has carotid artery disease or arterial disease in other locations in the body such as the heart or the legs
  • Diabetes: Diabetes lowers your ability to process sugars and fats. People with diabetes are four times as likely to have carotid artery disease.
  • Smoking: Smoking inflames, damages and constricts blood vessels and lowers oxygen flow. It can lead to increased cholesterol, increased heart rate and high blood pressure, in addition to many other negative health effects
  • High Blood Pressure: Excess pressure on the arteries can cause them to change their makeup and become more prone to damage.
  • High Cholesterol: Having a high LDL and low HDL can increase fat in the blood stream.
  • Poor Diet: Eating foods that are high in fat, salt, or sugar can increase your risk of carotid artery disease.

Unfortunately, symptoms of carotid artery disease might not be noticeable until it severely narrows or blocks a carotid artery, leading to a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke.

For some, this is the first sign of carotid artery disease. During a mini-stroke, you may have some or all of the symptoms of a stroke. However, the symptoms usually go away on their own within 24 hours.

Stroke and mini-stroke symptoms may include:

  • Inability to move one or more of your limbs
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden drooping of the face on one side
  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the face or limbs, often on just one side of the body
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • A sudden, severe headache with no known cause
  • Dizziness or loss of balance

If you experience any of these symptoms, even if they end quickly, call 9-1-1 immediately.

The best way to lower the risk of carotid artery disease is to not smoke, eat healthy, exercise, and in some cases prescribed medication.

Talk to your doctor if you have multiple risk factors that may indicate carotid artery disease.

To learn more information about stroke prevention, Spectrum Health is hosting a Doctor Dialogue on Wednesday, February 15. Join Spectrum Health at Fredrik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park from 6:30 to 8:30 learn about signs and symptoms of stroke, as well as treatment options.

Register online at or call (616) 267-2626, option 4.

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