Carotid artery disease
Carotid artery disease is a risk factor for stroke. It can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes. Some people will have surgery to repair the artery.
What is carotid artery disease?
Carotid artery disease happens in the blood vessels in your neck taking blood to the brain (arteries). It means that the arteries have become narrowed, stiff and clogged with fatty material.
How can carotid artery disease cause a stroke or TIA?
Carotid artery disease can lead to a clot in the blood vessels in the neck. This can cause a stroke in one of two ways:
- A clot blocks the carotid artery, cutting off the blood supply to the brain and causing a stroke. This is known as occlusion.
- A clot can break off inside the artery, and travel to the brain. This is known as thrombosis.
Carotid artery disease is a common cause of stroke, and up to 15% of all ischaemic strokes in the UK may be due to this condition.
It’s usually discovered after you have a stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA or mini-stroke). To reduce your risk of another stroke or TIA, you might need a surgical procedure to repair the blood vessels.
How does carotid artery disease happen?
Carotid artery disease means the arteries in your neck are clogged up and narrowed. This is known as atherosclerosis.
What is atherosclerosis?
Over time, fatty materials in the blood can stick to the lining of the artery walls. These fats combine with other materials such as blood cell fragments. This can build up into a thickened area inside the blood vessel. The build-up is known as atheroma, or plaque.
As atheromas form, the blood vessel becomes more and more stiff and narrow. This process is known as atherosclerosis.
Who can get atherosclerosis?
Our arteries naturally become narrowed as we get older. But some things make it more likely to happen, and there are things you can do to help reduce your risk of a stroke.
Medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can cause atherosclerosis. It’s also more likely to happen to you if it affects a close family member.
Smoking can cause atherosclerosis. Other risk factors include being overweight, not being very active, and eating food with too much fat and salt.
Carotid artery disease can be treated using surgery or medication and lifestyle changes. The treatment you’re offered depends on your individual risk of having another stroke.
You’ll only be offered a procedure if doctors think it will substantially reduce your risk of having another stroke. If the artery is narrowed by over 50% (also known as moderate to severe stenosis) and doctors think you have a high risk of another stroke, you may be offered a surgical procedure to repair the artery. This should be carried out as soon as possible after your stroke or TIA.
Other treatment options
If your artery is less than 50% narrowed, your medical team may decide that you will benefit from other types of treatment.
Medication can be very effective in reducing your risk of a stroke. For example, blood-thinning medication can reduce the risk of another clot forming, and medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol can reduce the build-up of fatty materials in your arteries. You’ll be given advice about how to make healthy lifestyle changes too.
Staying healthy and reducing your risk of a stroke
Atherosclerosis is a gradual process, but there are some things you can do to help slow it down, and reduce your risk of another stroke.
Atherosclerosis is often linked to conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. By taking any medication you need for these conditions, you may be able to reduce the build-up of atheroma.
After a stroke you will have advice and treatment to control your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. You can get support with taking medication from your GP or pharmacist.
We have information on all the health conditions linked to stroke online at stroke.org.uk/are-you-at-risk.
Healthy lifestyle changes
After a stroke, you should have advice and support with making any lifestyle changes you need. This can include help with quitting smoking and support for losing weight. Becoming more active and having a healthy diet can also help you stay healthy and reduce your risk of another stroke.
Getting started with healthy lifestyle changes
Your GP can give you the help and advice you need about healthy lifestyle changes. This could include free support services for quitting smoking and local schemes to help you be more active.
You can read more about carotid artery disease and how to reduce your risk of stroke in the below PDFs.
- Download Carotid artery disease (PDF)
- Download How to reduce your risk of a stroke (PDF)
- Download Healthy eating and stroke guide (PDF)
Where to get help and information from the Stroke Association
Call us on 0303 3033 100,from a textphone 1800 0303 3033 100
Our Helpline offers information and support for anyone affected by stroke, including family, friends and carers.
Read our information
Call the Helpline to ask for printed copies of our guides.
Other sources of help and information
Tel: 01543 442 194
Information on carotid artery disease and treatments. Have details of patient support groups and a UK-wide counselling directory.
Provides patient health information, including carotid endarterectomy, for people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
NHS Inform website (Scotland)
Provides health information for the public in Scotland.
NHS Medicine Service
Pharmacy-based support service (England only)
In England, you can join the New Medicines Service (NMS) by asking your local pharmacist. This gives you three appointments with your pharmacist in a private consultation room. The service helps you with getting started, and supports you with solving any problems.
Disclaimer: The Stroke Association provides the details of other organisations and apps for information only. Inclusion on My Stroke Guide does not constitute a recommendation or endorsement.