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Tip: Watch out for carotid artery stenosis

According to the CDC, strokes are the 5th highest cause of death and a leading cause of serious long-term disability in the U.S. 

Most strokes occur when the blood flow to your brain is cut off, typically by a blockage – these are called ischemic strokes. Age and family history of strokes are common risk factors that make you more likely to have one. 

“While you can’t change your age or family history, managing other risk factors can prevent most strokes,” said Dr. Gregory Salzler, Geisinger vascular surgeon.

We’ll discuss how to tip the odds in your favor. But first, let’s take a closer look at carotid artery stenosis (or carotid artery disease), a silent condition that can result in a stroke.

What is carotid artery stenosis?
Carotid artery stenosis is a type of vascular disease caused by a narrowing or blockage in the arteries in your neck. “These arteries are like highways, carrying oxygen-rich blood to your brain,” said Dr. Salzler. 

However, arteries can become blocked over time by plaque deposits - cholesterol, fat and other substances. 

This slows blood flow to the brain and increases your risk of having a stroke. “People with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, who smoke, are obese and have diabetes have a higher risk of suffering a stroke,” said Dr. Salzler.

Warning sign – the “mini stroke”
Carotid artery stenosis develops slowly and can often go unnoticed until a “mini stroke” (transient ischemic attack or TIA) or a stroke occurs. 

“A ‘mini stroke’ happens when there’s low blood flow to the brain, caused by narrowing or brief blockage in the artery,” explains Dr. Salzer. “The symptoms are the same as a stroke, but only last for a short amount of time.” 

To remember the signs of stroke (and “mini stroke”), think of the acronym B.E. F.A.S.T.:

  • Balance difficulties
  • Eyesight changes
  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911

A “mini-stroke” is often a warning sign that a major stroke will happen.

“Even if your symptoms go away, it’s important to seek emergency care immediately,” said Dr. Salzler. “Seeing a doctor early means you’ll be diagnosed and treated before a stroke occurs.”

How can you prevent this?
Managing controllable conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes and making lifestyle changes are key to prevention.

Here are 7 ways to help prevent carotid artery stenosis and stroke:

  1. Cut back on alcohol use
  2. Eat a healthy diet
  3. Get more exercise
  4. Keep diabetes in check
  5. Lower your blood pressure 
  6. Stop smoking
  7. Watch your cholesterol 

“It’s important to have regular checkups with your doctor to manage your risk factors and treat underlying causes of stroke,” said Dr. Salzler.

Diagnosis and treatment at Geisinger
Your vascular specialist will perform non-invasive diagnostic tests to diagnose and get you on the road to recovery. These may include listening to the blood flow in your neck with a stethoscope, an ultrasound or special CT and MRI scans, called angiograms.

“Mild cases of carotid artery stenosis may be treated with a daily low-dose of aspirin and lifestyle changes, while more severe cases may require surgery or stents,” said Dr. Salzler.

Geisinger’s board certified vascular surgeons are specially trained to operate on arteries to remove plaque (carotid endarterectomy) and have specific expertise in carotid artery stenting (opening artery for better blood flow), performing more procedures than any other program in the region. No matter your need, we’re here to help.

Gregory Salzler, MD, is a vascular surgeon practicing at several Geisinger vascular surgery centers. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Salzler or another Geisinger vascular specialist, please call 800-275-6401.

Happy couple exercising regularly to prevent stroke.

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