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Carotid Artery Problems: Stroke

The carotid arteries are large blood vessels that carry blood to the brain. When these arteries are healthy, the brain gets all the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function well. If the carotid arteries are damaged, however, it can greatly increase your chances of stroke. This is a sudden loss of brain function caused by a lack of blood flow and oxygen.

Cross section of carotid artery with plaque in walls and blood clot completely blocking blood flow. Emboli break off from clot and travel upwards to brain. Outline of human head showing common carotid and external carotid arteries in neck and internal carotid arteries going into base of brain. Part of brain is darkened to show damage.
Small pieces of a blood clot called emboli break off and can enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain. Brain tissue is damaged when emboli block arteries in the brain.

How artery damage can lead to stroke

In a healthy carotid artery, the inside of the artery wall is smooth and open. But health problems such as high blood pressure can damage the artery wall and make it rough. This allows fatty deposits called plaque to build up in the artery wall. Blood clots called emboli may also form on the plaque. If pieces of plaque or emboli break off, they can flow in the blood until they get stuck in a small blood vessel in the brain. This blocks blood flow to a part of the brain causing a stroke.

Symptoms of stroke

Below are common symptoms of stroke. Call 911 right away if you have any of these symptoms. Prompt medical treatment for a stroke is vital. The longer you wait to get help, the more damage a stroke can do.

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on 1 side of the body

  • Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding

  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes

  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination

  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

A transient ischemic attack or TIAis a ministroke. It’s a serious warning sign of a larger stroke. TIAs happen when an artery to the brain is temporarily blocked. This blockage will cause symptoms identical to those that happen with stroke. The only difference is that they last a short period of time, from a few seconds to a few hours. Never ignore any stroke symptoms. Call 911 right away.

Online Medical Reviewer: Foster, Sara, RN, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Gandelman, Glenn, MD, MPH
Date Last Reviewed: 6/8/2015
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