The What, When, and Why Everyone Should Know!
The human body is an amazing machine! When you stop and think about all of the functions the body performs and the way that it regulates itself, it really is astonishing.
Although our bodies do a pretty great job at taking care of themselves, there are times when we need to make sure all systems are a go! Certain symptoms and risks should not be ignored, and there are times when your physician may recommend a test, such as an ultrasound, to help screen, diagnose and treat underlying medical conditions.
An ultrasound of the carotid arteries is a safe, painless, and routine evaluation that provides valuable information about the state of your all-important carotid arteries. This test:
- Uses sound waves to create images of the carotid arteries
- Checks to see whether they have any atherosclerotic changes
- Takes approximately 30 minutes
- Is performed in a hospital or clinic that specializes in diagnostic medical ultrasound
- Is performed by a consultant or vascular sonographer who uses an instrument called a transducer to assess both sides of the neck to view common, internal, external carotid and vertebral arteries.
WHY is a Carotid Doppler Ultrasound Necessary?
A carotid doppler ultrasound is done to determine whether you have changes to the lining of your arteries that may be causing a narrowing of the carotid arteries or if you have any other type of atherosclerotic disease that would increase your risk of stroke and heart disease.
This type of ultrasound clearly shows a doctor whether or not plaque has built up in your arteries. Plaque is a combination of fat, calcium, cholesterol, and other substances, and its build-up can eventually lead to blocked or significantly narrowed arteries. By determining early on if plaque build-up is present, your physician can determine a treatment plan that could help you avoid medical issues down the road.
WHAT’s The Real Story With These Carotid Arteries?
The carotid arteries are the major blood vessels in the neck. They supply much needed blood to your head and neck – which is vital to the healthy functioning of your body.
We have three types of carotid arteries:
- Common: These are the main avenues for blood supply to the head. We have two common carotid arteries that lie, one on the right and one on the left side of the neck and then branch into the internal and external carotid arteries.
- Internal: These arteries supply blood to the brain.
- External: These arteries supply blood to the face, scalp, and neck.
Obviously, the most important of these arteries is the internal, since they supply the brain with the blood it needs to perform all functions.
As you can imagine, a narrowing of the carotid arteries due to plaque build-up or blockages could lead to stroke, which is vastly dangerous and can lead to serious long-lasting effects on your health and mobility or in severe cases death. When plaque builds up in the arteries, several different scenarios present themselves.
Atherosclerotic disease can cause a significant reduction of blood flow to the brain or can create a blockage so that the body has to create a new pathway to provide the brain with oxygen.
A second possibility is that plaque can rupture or ulcerate, which will cause a blood clot to form. The clot can also create a blockage, and this, too, can lead to a stroke.
A third scenario is that a piece of either the plaque build-up or the blood clot (thrombus) can break off. When this happens, this flows through the blood stream and can become lodged in a small blood vessel. This, too, can result in stroke.
Since the mere mention of the word stroke is unnerving, I think we all understand now why the health of our carotid arteries is an important topic that should never be ignored and along with blood tests can assess your risk of stroke and heart disease.
Medical Conditions That Can Increase Your Risk of Stroke
There are certain medical conditions that increase the risk of stroke. If you have one of these conditions, or if your doctor suspects that you do, then a carotid ultrasound may be in order. These conditions include, but are not limited to:
- history of stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA)
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- family history of stroke or heart disease
- lifestyle choice, such as obesity, poor diet, tobacco use, physical inactivity, or heavy alcohol use
- questionable or abnormal sounds in arteries during stethoscope exam (bruit)
- sickle cell disease
- certain medication such as anticoagulants and birth control pills in women over 35
But What Does the Ultrasound Do?
There are several different functions that a carotid ultrasound performs.
- It evaluates the blood flow to the brain. The ultrasound can determine whether or not blood flow is reduced enough to restrict your brain from receiving optimal amounts of blood and oxygen.
- The ultrasound can evaluate the intimal media thickness of the arteries to assess risk. This test measures the thickness of the lining of the carotids and can assess any changes such as thickness in the lining to assess the progression of plaque build-up, also known as atherosclerotic disease. By tracking these changes, doctors can determine your relative risk of stroke.
- A carotid doppler or duplex scan determines if plaque is present and if so can characterize whether the plaque has hardened. Hard or calcified plaque is usually more stable, since it does not break off, and is less concerning, although it can still cause issues. Soft or homogeneous plaque is more worrisome since pieces of it can easily break off and flow to the brain, causing a stroke.
This type of ultrasound can diagnose issues that you may have not even been aware of, prior to the test. Many of these issues can be developing without symptoms.
More Uses for a Carotid Doppler Ultrasound?
There are other reasons that a physician may choose to perform a carotid doppler ultrasound besides assessing stroke factors. The test can be useful for other purposes as well, which include:
- Carotid ultrasounds can be used to locate the position of a blood clot.
- Ultrasound can also be used after plaque removing surgery (endarterectomy) to check the success of the surgery.
- Doctors use ultrasound during stent placement surgeries. Stents are mesh screens which are placed in diseased arteries to open and allow an increase in blood flow.
- A carotid ultrasound may be in order for patients experiencing amaurosis fugax, which is a loss of vision in one eye.
- Carotid ultrasounds may be indicated for the diagnosis of aneurysm.
As you can see, a carotid doppler ultrasound is a valuable tool in any physician’s tool box. It can provide a great deal of information about some potentially serious medical issues especially stroke and heart disease. The best part of this test is that it is completely safe and pain free…and it will give you the peace of mind everyone deserves!!
To Schedule Your Carotid Doppler Ultrasound Scan Appointment Contact Us Today.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-Conditions that Increase Risk for Stroke
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute-What is Carotid Ultrasound?
University of California, San Francisco- Vascular and Endovascular Surgery: Carotid Ultrasound