What are the symptoms of carotid artery disease?

In some cases, the first sign of carotid artery disease could be a stroke. However, one may experience warning symptoms of a stroke called transient ischemic attacks (TIA) or mini-stroke. Symptoms of a TIA usually last for a few minutes to 1 hour and include:

  • numbness in the arms or legs, especially on just one side of the body
  • drooping of one side of the face
  • confusion
  • difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  • a sudden episode of memory loss
  • difficulty seeing from either one or both eyes
  • disorientation or disturbance in coordination
  • severe headache

These symptoms usually go away completely within 24 hours. However, they should not be ignored. Having a TIA could mean one is at serious risk of a stroke in the near future. TIA symptoms should be reported to a physician immediately.

If the above symptoms last longer than a few hours, or they don't resolve within 24 hours, a stroke has probably occurred. Contact a physician immediately.

Blockage (stenosis) of the carotid arteries can also occur without any signs or symptoms. This is called asymptomatic stenosis and it is sometimes discovered during a routine examination, when a "bruit" (a swishing sound), is heard through a stethoscope placed on the neck in the area over the artery. A bruit generally indicates a significant level of stenosis in the artery.

People might wonder what sort of symptoms they would have if they had a plaque buildup on the carotid artery. Many times what you will see is what we call transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). Some people call these mini strokes. What they actually are is you get a little piece of plaque, or platelets or blood clots that form on the plaque, and these break loose and go to the brain. What this causes is a transient loss of function in that part of the brain.

When that happens, the person may have a transient loss of function of an arm, a leg or both. Sometimes if the plaque goes to the little blood vessels involving the retina or the eye, you can have a transient loss of vision just involving one eye. That's pretty pathognomonic of that sort of problem in terms of carotid artery blockage or stenosis. That is a significant problem, and certainly if you're symptomatic, it's something that you need to see your regular doctor about.

Carotid artery disease may not cause signs or symptoms until it severely narrows or blocks the carotid arteries. Signs and symptoms may include a bruit, a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or a stroke.

Bruit: During a physical exam, your doctor may listen to your carotid arteries with a stethoscope. He or she may hear a whooshing sound called a bruit. This sound may suggest changed or reduced blood flow due to plaque. To find out more, your doctor may order tests. Not all people who have carotid artery disease have bruits.

Transient ischemic attack: For some people, having a TIA, or "mini-stroke," is the first sign of carotid artery disease. During a mini-stroke, you may have some or all of the symptoms of a stroke. However, the symptoms usually go away on their own within 24 hours.

The symptoms may include:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the face or limbs, often on just one side of the body
  • The inability to move one or more of your limbs
  • Trouble speaking and understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • A sudden, severe headache with no known cause

Even if the symptoms stop quickly, you should see a doctor right away. It's important to get checked and to get treatment started within 1 hour of having symptoms.

A mini-stroke is a warning sign that you're at high risk of having a stroke. You shouldn't ignore these symptoms. About one-third of people who have mini-strokes will have strokes if they don't get treatment.

Stroke: Most people who have carotid artery disease don't have mini-strokes before they have strokes. The symptoms of stroke are the same as those of mini-stroke, but the results are not. A stroke can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability, paralysis (an inability to move), or even death. Getting treatment for a stroke right away is very important. You have the best chance for full recovery if treatment to open a blocked artery is given within 6 hours of symptom onset. Ideally, treatment should be given within 3 hours of symptom onset. Make those close to you aware of stroke symptoms and the need for urgent action. Learning the signs and symptoms of a stroke will allow you to help yourself or someone close to you lower the risk for damage or death from a stroke.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.