How is carotid artery disease diagnosed?
- If you are at risk then it is advisable to have regular check-ups even if you are asymptomatic.
- A hissing sound when the doctor listens over the artery in the neck with a stethoscope strengthens the diagnosis
- Carotid Duplex Ultrasound – This is a non-invasive test and causes no inconvenience to the patient. It is fairly diagnostic in proving narrowing or blockage of the artery.
- Carotid Angiography – This is an invasive test where a catheter is put in the arm of the groin. A dye is pushed into the artery and the images recorded. It is conducted under local anesthesia and confirms narrowing or blockage after which further treatment can be decided stenting or surgery.
- Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA) – is a non-invasive magnetic scan with radio-waves providing information about the narrowing or the blockage of the arteries.
- CT Angiography – This gives three-dimensional pictures of the carotid and vertebral arteries, as well as the brain arteries.
How is carotid artery disease managed?
The three basic guidelines to manage this disease are:
- Making lifestyle changes
- Taking the prescribed drugs
- Having the procedure as recommended.
What are the lifestyle changes needed?
This prevents a carotid disease from progressing and they are:
- Quit smoking
- Control blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol (LDL < 100 and HDL > 45)
- Regular check-ups by the doctors
- Diet control – low saturated fats, sodium, and cholesterol
- Weight control
- Daily 30 minutes of exercise
- Limit alcohol to less than 3 drinks per day.
- Manage other risk factors – patient with atrial fibrillation must have anticoagulation to prevent a clot forming and migrating to give rise to stroke.
What are the drugs indicated?
- Anti-platelets – reduce the risk of strokes and cardiac complications. They include Aspirin, Clopidogrel (prevent sticking of the platelets) and dipyridamole (Persantine). These could be given separately or in combination. At times anticoagulation like warfarin and acetone may be added to reduce the risk or stroke.
- Tissue Plasminogen activator (TPA) – It is a clot-dissolving drug used to treat stroke caused by blood clots (ischemic stroke). 80% of all strokes are ischemic. TPA only works if given within 3 hours of the start of stroke symptoms.
What are the corrective procedures?
The steps are as below:
The narrowed artery is dilated to increase blood flow to the brain. This dilatation is done by two methods
- Carotid stenting
- Carotid endarterectomy
- In both these procedures, the blood supply to the brain is brought to normal, which is exactly what is needed.
If however, the patient is asymptomatic despite the narrowing then one has to evaluate if medicines would be all that is needed or surgery would be better.
How is carotid endarterectomy performed?
- It is recommended for symptomatic patients with over 50% narrowing and asymptomatic patients with over 60% narrowing.
- It may be performed under general anesthesia or local anesthesia.
- An incision is made in the neck over the artery.
- The artery is exposed control taken.
- The plaque is removed after opening the artery.
- The artery is sewn and blood flow restored to the brain.
How is carotid angioplasty and stenting performed?
- The patient is awake.
- The catheter is inserted percutaneously in the groin or the arm under local anesthesia.
- The catheter is threaded towards the site of carotid stenosis under fluoroscopic guidance.
- A guide wire with a filter (umbrella) is placed beyond the narrowing on the side of the brain to prevent clots (debris) from going to the brain and causing stroke during the procedure. It is a protective device.
- A balloon is passed and dilated at the site of the narrowing to widen the narrow site.
- Now a metal stent or tube is placed at the widened site to prevent it from narrowing again.
- It takes several weeks for the inner artery lining to cover the stent from within.
- Studies have shown that carotid stenting with a protective device is as safe and effective in high-risk cases.
- The hospital stay in both cases is 2-3 days and people resume duty within one week.
- Do surgical patients need follow-up?
- This should be done at regular intervals.
How to find a doctor if you have a carotid disease?
The more complex the problem the more care you need and it is important you reach the right experts. Specialist medical care will have a direct impact on how well you do and how safe you are from having a stroke. It is recommended you contact a vascular surgery specialist.