The function of the carotid arteries is to help transport blood into a person’s brain and other areas in the head, making them essential to brain function.

Arteries play a vital role in transporting oxygen-rich blood from the heart to other parts of the body.

Keep reading for more information about the carotid arteries, including their anatomy and function. We also discuss the role that they play in carotid artery disease.

a illustration of where the carotid arteries are

The carotid arteries extend out from the aorta artery, which transports blood out of the heart and is the body’s largest artery.

The carotid arteries carry blood through the neck up to the brain. There are two carotid arteries: one on the left and one on the right.

In the neck, each of them branches off into an internal carotid artery and an external carotid artery.

The position of the branched carotid arteries is where a person can feel the pulse in their neck, just under the jaw.

There are an additional eight major divisions of the carotid arteries. The different divisions help transport blood to different parts of the head and face.

The carotid arteries transport oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain and head. Some of the areas that carotid arteries help supply with blood include the:

  • brain
  • face
  • scalp
  • roof of the mouth
  • tongue
  • seventh cranial nerve
  • oral cavity
  • teeth
  • ears
  • supporting muscles in the face and neck

Without adequate blood flow and oxygen, brain cells will die off, resulting in brain damage.

Carotid artery disease is a condition in which the carotid arteries narrow. This narrowing reduces the amount of oxygen-rich blood that can flow through these vessels.

The most common cause of carotid artery disease is atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaques comprising fatty deposits, cholesterol, and other substances.

Several factors put a person at increased risk of developing carotid artery disease. These include:

  • diabetes
  • being male
  • having an elevated level of fats in the blood
  • obesity
  • reaching an older age
  • a diet high in saturated fats
  • family history
  • genetic factors
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking
  • high blood pressure

A person may not experience any symptoms of carotid artery disease. If the arteries get so narrow that a blockage forms, however, they could experience a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or stroke.

A TIA is similar to a stroke in that it causes a lack of blood flow to parts of the brain for a short time.

However, unlike a stroke, the symptoms of TIA are temporary and will typically go away.

If a person experiences either a TIA or a stroke, they may show signs such as:

  • lack of coordination or inability to move
  • blurred vision
  • a sudden weakness, numbness, or paralysis on one side of the body
  • temporary vision loss
  • dizziness or fainting
  • confusion
  • inability to concentrate
  • slurred or incoherent speech
  • a headache

A stroke is a medical emergency. Anyone who witnesses someone possibly having a stroke should call 911 or the local emergency number immediately.

A doctor may use several different tests to determine whether a person has carotid artery disease or has had a stroke or TIA. These tests include:

  • MRI scan
  • carotid artery duplex scan
  • auscultation (listening to the internal sounds of the body using a stethoscope) of the carotid arteries
  • CT scan
  • angiography
  • magnetic resonance angiography

Once a doctor has diagnosed carotid artery disease, they will recommend treatment options to help prevent future complications.

There are several treatment options for carotid artery disease.

If the carotid artery narrowing is less than 50%, a doctor will often treat the blockage with medications and lifestyle changes.

They may recommend the following medications:

  • antihypertensives, which lower blood pressure
  • antihyperlipidemics, which lower blood lipid levels
  • antiplatelet medications

Possible lifestyle changes may include:

  • quitting smoking
  • exercising regularly
  • eating a more healthful and balanced diet

If a person has a more severe blockage, a doctor may recommend additional treatments, such as carotid angioplasty with stenting (CAS). CAS is a minimally invasive procedure.

During a CAS procedure, a doctor inserts a small hollow tube, or catheter, into the arteries through the person’s groin. The catheter may have a balloon at its tip, which the doctor can use to increase the size of the artery so that they can place a stent in the artery.

The stent helps hold the artery open, reducing the risk of blockages.

In some cases, a doctor may recommend a carotid endarterectomy (CEA). A CEA is a procedure in which the doctor cleans plaque from the carotid artery.

A person’s treatment will vary depending on their age, overall health, and medical history, as well as how advanced the carotid artery disease has become.

The carotid arteries provide blood to the brain and other areas of the head.

Over time, a person may develop carotid artery disease, which occurs when these blood vessels narrow.

People who are concerned about their risk of TIA or stroke should speak to a doctor about treatments and lifestyle changes.