What Does a Carotid Ultrasound Tell You?

Blog Post
By South Valley Vascular
January 3, 2023

The carotid arteries are crucial for making sure oxygenated blood is making its way to the brain. If there are any potential issues with the carotid arteries, you can identify them with a carotid ultrasound. A carotid ultrasound tells you about potential risks or concerns with the carotid artery before it results in a complication. An unforeseen clot of the carotid artery could result in a stroke.

There are two carotid arteries: the interior carotid artery and the exterior carotid artery. They run along the neck, next to the similar vital jugular vein (which carries deoxygenated blood away from the brain.) The carotid arteries run along the left and right sides of the neck. Since they are the main way oxygenated blood gets to the brain, a blockage is exceptionally dangerous. This is why getting a carotid ultrasound can be so crucial, especially if there’s a family history of stroke.

Why Get a Carotid Artery Ultrasound

Your doctor might order a carotid artery ultrasound if you had surgery on a narrowed artery. This is a required follow-up if there is a stent in the carotid. A periodic check-up is also required if an artery appears narrowed. If you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, had a stroke or had a transient ischemic attack, you may need a carotid ultrasound. Similarly, if you’re going to have a coronary artery bypass, they may take a carotid ultrasound to check its strength.

You may also have a higher risk of stroke if you have certain preexisting conditions. These include things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, atrial fibrillation, sickle cell disease, obesity, and heart disease. Lifestyle choices can also impact stroke risk, like using tobacco products, eating a high-fat, high-salt diet, and being inactive. In situations like this, your medical provider may recommend a carotid artery ultrasound to gauge your potential risk.

How a Carotid Doppler Ultrasound Works

The Carotid Doppler Ultrasound uses sound waves to make an image of the inside of your carotid artery. A computer can then convert these images on a screen, where the sonographer can either record video or pictures. The Doppler ultrasound will help the specialist or provider look at blow flow, narrowing, blockages, or potential malformations. The procedure itself usually takes about 30 to 45 minutes. There aren’t any special preparations other than wearing properly fitting clothing and avoiding jewelry. 

Your healthcare provider will put a clear gel on the sides of your neck for the ultrasound. You will lie down and be encouraged not to move as the transducer scans your neck. Most of the sound waves are ultrasound, so they are outside of your hearing range. However, the Doppler does make a sound. It’s best described as a “swishing” sound that changes pitch. There’s minimal risk of injury to the patient and no need for anesthetic.

Protect the Carotid Artery

Using the information from a carotid ultrasound, the provider will discover potential blockages and their severity. Usually, this is expressed as a percentage (25% blocked, 50% blocked, and so on). Irregular results could be the result of atherosclerosis, a blood clot, or other potential risks. 

If there’s plaque buildup of less than 60% (or 50% with stroke or TIA symptoms), you’ll receive medical advice to lower it. This includes habit changes like improving diet, increasing exercise, and stopping smoking tobacco products. They may recommend medication options or even surgical steps to remove the plaque. Carotid ultrasounds (especially Doppler ultrasounds) are generally accurate. However, there is potential for milder problems to go unnoticed. If a test is inconclusive, your provider may recommend another imaging test, like a magnetic resonance angiography.

Getting a carotid ultrasound, especially if your family has a preexisting history of stroke, may save a life. If you’re in the South San Joaquin Valley area, you can get your carotid artery ultrasound at South Valley Vascular. South Valley Vascular’s board-certified vascular specialists provide top-of-the-line care with your needs in mind.