The carotid arteries are the blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from the heart to the head and brain.
Located on each side of the neck, these arteries can easily be felt pulsating by placing your fingers gently on either side of your windpipe.
Another smaller set of arteries, the vertebral arteries, are located along the back of the neck adjacent to the spine, and supply blood to the back of the brain.
Carotid artery disease is defined by the narrowing or blockage of this artery due to plaque build-up. The process that blocks these arteries (atherosclerosis) is basically the same as that which causes both coronary artery disease (CAD) and peripheral artery disease (PAD). The slow build-up of plaque (which is a deposit of cholesterol, calcium, and other cells in the artery wall) is caused by high blood pressure, diabetes, tobacco use, high blood cholesterol, and other modifiable risk factors. Over time, this narrowing may eventually become so severe that a blockage decreases blood flow to the brain and may tragically cause a stroke.
A stroke can also occur if a piece of plaque or a blood clot breaks off from the wall of the carotid artery and travels to the smaller arteries of the brain (Vascular Disease Foundation, www.vdf.org).
Treatment options: Carotid endarterectomy, carotid stenting, medical therapy.