Various conditions can lead to carotid artery neck pain. For instance, some people experience carotidynia, which is inflammation of the blood vessels.

Carotid artery dissection can also cause pain in the neck. This condition occurs due to a tear in the artery, sometimes due to an injury. It is a medical emergency and can lead to a stroke.

However, neck pain can also occur for other reasons, such as sleeping awkwardly, sitting for too long, or pinching a nerve. If a person is in any doubt, they should call a doctor.

Read on to learn more about carotid artery neck pain, including its causes and treatments.

A diagram of human anatomy showing the carotid arteries in the neck.Share on Pinterest
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There are several reasons why the carotid arteries, or the area around them, might hurt.

The carotid arteries are a pair of blood vessels at the front of the neck. They supply oxygen-rich blood to the front of the brain. This region of the brain manages thought, speech, personality, and the ability to feel physical sensations and move.

If there is pain in the carotid arteries themselves, this could be due to carotidynia, which is an inflammatory condition, or carotid artery dissection, which is a tear in the inner layer of the arteries.

However, pain in the region of the carotid arteries does not necessarily come from the arteries. A person could have neck pain for other reasons, such as:

  • sleeping in an awkward position
  • sitting at a desk for long periods
  • a pinched nerve
  • an injury, such as whiplash
  • other underlying conditions

It is important to speak with a doctor if a person experiences neck pain that could be in the carotid arteries. It is impossible to self-diagnose the cause, so a doctor will need to investigate.

If a person has any of the following signs of stroke, call 911 immediately:

  • sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg
  • sudden confusion or difficulty speaking or understanding someone else’s speech
  • sudden difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
  • sudden difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • sudden severe headache with no obvious cause

Below is more information on the potential causes of carotid artery pain.

Carotid artery dissection is a tear in the inner layer of a carotid artery. This can cause blood to leak into the other layers of the artery and may restrict blood flow to the brain, causing a stroke.

Carotid artery dissection is the most common cause of stroke in people younger than 40 and causes 2.5% of strokes overall.

The condition may occur due to trauma, such as a car accident. It also more commonly occurs in people with connective tissue disorders, such as Marfan syndrome, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, or fibromuscular dysplasia. However, the cause is unknown in most cases.

The symptoms of carotid artery dissection vary significantly between individuals, from no symptoms to severe symptoms. Some potential signs may include:

Doctors may treat carotid artery dissection with blood-thinning medications or a stent, which is a tube that supports the inside of the artery. The exact treatment will depend on whether:

  • the cause is spontaneous or due to trauma
  • the person has had a stroke
  • the dissection occurred inside or outside of the skull
  • there is active bleeding

A person has the best chance of fully recovering if they receive medical attention immediately.

Carotidynia is a rare inflammatory disorder of the blood vessels that causes pain in the face and neck. Doctors sometimes refer to carotidynia as Fay syndrome or transient perivascular inflammation of the carotid artery (TIPIC) syndrome.

One study from 2017 reported that carotidynia causes 2.8% of acute neck pain cases. The condition has no known cause, but it is linked to tenderness at the point where the two branches of the carotid artery divide. In rare cases, the condition may be due to nose and throat cancer, chemotherapy, or high altitude travel.

People usually only experience carotidynia symptoms on one side of their head. The symptoms may get worse when they:

  • move the head
  • chew
  • yawn
  • cough
  • swallow

Pain episodes can last 7–14 days and tend to come back every 1–6 months. Because the pain episodes often go away on their own, doctors tend to recommend rest and pain-relieving medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, to treat the symptoms.

If symptoms do not clear up, a doctor may prescribe a short course of corticosteroids or another medication.

Some people may wonder if pain around the carotid arteries means they have a blockage due to carotid artery disease. However, pain is not typically a symptom of this.

Carotid artery disease occurs when plaque builds up inside blood vessels, causing them to narrow. This allows less blood to flow to the brain. Often, carotid artery disease does not cause symptoms until it is severe enough to cause a stroke.

Doctors may be able to detect carotid artery disease when carrying out other tests. They may hear a “whooshing” sound when listening to the artery using a stethoscope or see signs of carotid artery disease on medical scans.

If a person gets an early diagnosis, treatment involves taking steps to lower the risk of stroke. This may include:

  • dietary changes
  • medications
  • surgery to remove plaque
  • surgery to widen the artery using a stent

Carotid artery neck pain may be due to conditions that directly affect the carotid arteries, such as carotidynia. This is a rare disorder without a clear cause.

Another explanation is carotid artery dissection, a serious condition that can occur after an injury. It is a medical emergency that can cause a stroke. However, other conditions can cause pain at the front of the neck in the same area as the carotid artery.

If a person has severe symptoms that could be signs of a stroke, it is important to seek emergency help right away. Otherwise, it is best to speak with a doctor about this symptom so they can determine the cause.