Think you might have carotid artery blockage or know someone who does? If you have carotid artery blockage, you face a significantly elevated risk of stroke. And, you would not be alone. Each year, about 900,000 people in the United States die of heart disease or stroke. In fact, the older you are, the higher your risk. And, more men than women have strokes. Strokes are the number three killer in the United States and are a leading cause of disability among the elderly.

Here are 6 facts you should know about carotid artery blockage and stroke risk:

1. The carotid arteries are located in the neck and splits into two branches

Each side of the human neck has an artery called the “common carotid.” Each common carotid splits into two branches: the internal branch and the external branch. The internal branch brings oxygen-rich blood to the brain, while the external branch brings blood to the face.

2. Carotid arteries can become blocked, leading to carotid artery disease

When your carotid arteries become blocked, you may be diagnosed with carotid artery disease. This is a type of disease that affects the vessels leading to the brain. As does the heart, the brain needs a regular and constant supply of oxygen-rich blood. The carotid arteries are the primary suppliers of blood to the brain (along with two small vertebral arteries at the back of your neck). Carotid artery disease can increase the risk of stroke by: 1. plaque narrowing the carotid arteries, 2. a blood clot becoming wedged in the artery already narrowed by plaque, 3. by plaque breaking off from the arteries and blocking a smaller artery in the brain.

3. The risk factors for carotid artery disease are similar to those for coronary artery disease

The risk factors for carotid artery disease are as follows:

a. high levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (bad cholesterol) and triglycerides in the blood
b. high blood pressure
c. diabetes
d. smoking
e. family history of coronary artery disease
f. obesity
g. lack of exercise

5. There are no symptoms specific to carotid artery disease

Although there are no symptoms specific to carotid artery disease, there are signs that you might be at high risk for having a stroke. For example, transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) are one of the most significant warning signs that you may be facing an impending stroke. Sometimes called “mini-strokes,” TIAs are temporary episodes and can include headache, dizziness, numbness, blurred vision, confusion, or paralysis. The attacks can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. See a doctor right away if you or someone you know has the symptoms of a TIA. However, the best option is not to wait for a TIA, and get screened as a preventive measure.

6. Carotid artery disease can be diagnosed

In most cases, your doctor cannot tell you whether you have carotid artery disease via a normal checkup. Your doctor may ask you whether you have had common symptoms of a stroke, such as muscle weakness or numbness, etc. However, in many cases, these symptoms are simply not present. This is exactly why most doctors will ask you to get screened by a preventive screening company which uses one of several diagnostic tools to verify your risk of carotid artery blockage.

Diagnostic tools employed to detect carotid artery blockage include:

a. Ultrasound imaging: Inexpensive, uses harmless sound waves to check blood flow, is non-radioactive, takes less than 5 minutes, and is very accessible via mobile health screening organizations in your neighborhood.

b. Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA/MRI): Expensive, uses powerful magnetic fields to give a detailed picture of your carotid arteries, takes about an hour, and is located in most hospitals or imaging centers.

c. Oculoplethysmography: Expensive, measures the pulsation of the arteries in the back of your eye as an indirect check for blockages in the carotid arteries, and is difficult to find in today’s marketplace.

d. Arteriography and digital subtraction angiography (DSA): Expensive, X-ray pictures of the carotid artery after a special dye is injected into your bloodstream, heavy radiation dosage, and located in most hospitals.

Carotid artery blockage can be a severe and dangerous disease, but by getting screened early and often you can catch the disease before it advances too far. The key is to be proactive about your health prior to issues like carotid artery disease developing.