Carotid artery disease, or carotid artery stenosis, refers to a narrowing within the carotid arteries that is usually caused by the buildup of plaque within the artery, called atherosclerosis.
The carotid artery supplies blood and oxygen to the brain as well as the head and neck. There are two common carotid arteries - one on each side of the neck - that split into two arteries: the internal and external carotid arteries. The internal carotid artery supplies blood and oxygen to the brain and the external carotid artery supplies blood and oxygen to the face, neck, and scalp.
For many people, carotid artery stenosis does not cause symptoms. However, when pieces of plaque break off (called emboli) and travel to the brain, blood flow to an area of the brain is blocked and causes a stroke. 30% to 50% of strokes are caused by carotid artery disease. Since stroke is the third leading cause of death in Canada, the diagnosis and treatment of this condition is critical.
People who smoke, are overweight, are inactive, or who have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar levels (e.g., diabetes) are at an increased risk of carotid artery disease.
Because plaque can also build up in arteries other than the carotid arteries, people who have carotid artery disease may also have coronary artery disease, or heart disease.