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What is the Carotid Artery?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The carotid artery is a major blood vessel that supplies the brain with oxygenated blood. The brain has very high oxygen requirements and interruptions to its supply of oxygen can be fatal in a matter of minutes as cells are damaged and die due to oxygen deprivation. For this reason, the carotid artery is a particularly critical part of the body's circulatory system and overall blood supply. Like other major arteries, it carries a very high volume of blood at any given time.

There are two carotid arteries, one on either side of the body. Both arise initially in the form of a common carotid artery which then splits into the external and internal carotids. People can feel their pulse in this artery by palpating the neck, a technique that is commonly taught to people like exercisers who want to monitor their heart rate while they work out. Medical providers can also find the carotid and use it as a quick point of reference during patient assessment.

If a patient's carotid is severed, he or she can bleed out in a matter of minutes. Likewise, internal injuries that rupture the carotid can cause a very high volume of internal bleeding and put a patient at serious risk. If the patient can be treated and recovers, there may be brain damage as a result of the temporary deprivation of oxygen to the brain.

Several medical issues can involve the carotid artery. In atherosclerosis, plaques of material build up on the inside of the artery walls. This can be dangerous because it narrows the width of the artery in a process known as stenosis. The artery can also harden and the walls may be at risk of rupturing. Stenosis limits the amount of blood that can pass by and may lead to conditions like strokes as a result. In addition, plaques or blood clots can break off, enter the brain, and cause a stroke.

Problems with the artery are sometimes identified during physical examinations. Medical imaging studies can be used to trace the path of the artery and look for stenosis, aneurysm, and other problems. Surgical procedures are available for emergencies and some conditions can be managed with medication or lifestyle changes. Surgeries include the insertion of stents to keep the artery open, along with open surgeries where the artery is opened to allow a surgeon to remove a buildup of plaque and other materials.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By matthewc23 — On Dec 01, 2011

A few years ago, I went with a friend to one of his martial arts classes. At the time, he wasn't going through the ranks of any particular type, but he was training for MMA fighting. Anyway, the instructor was teaching some of the basic submission holds, and most of them focused around cutting off the carotid artery.

It is pretty impressive, but if you know how to use a hold correctly, it can make someone go unconscious in a matter of seconds. I don't think there is any risk of long term damage, though, since the blood supply isn't cut off very long at all.

I believe they also use a lot of the same ideas in law enforcement and military training to subdue attackers.

By titans62 — On Nov 30, 2011

Has anyone here ever heard of transient ischemic attack? I just read about it recently. From what I read, it is caused by low blood flow and can cause clots to develop. From there the blood clots can cause strokes. I guess when it happens, though, you have some of the stroke symptoms and then they go away, but then the clot eventually cause a real stroke.

What I am curious about and couldn't really find any information on is why you would have low blood flow. Could you have low blood flow just from laying on the couch for a while, or would it have to be from something more serious that would cause low blood pressure?

If you diet and exercise regularly, is that supposed to reduce your risk of having a stroke?

By cardsfan27 — On Nov 30, 2011

@TreeMan - I believe the artery goes from your neck up around the back of your ears and then splits more to the point where you can't really feel the pulse anymore. At least that's what it feels like on my body.

I think whether or not you could tell if the artery was block would really just depend on your specific situation. If it was a "slow" blocking of the artery, I would suspect you would probably start to have vision problems, have a headache, and just generally feel weak.

One of my friend's parents had a stroke, though, and he said he didn't really experience anything out of the ordinary. I guess from the way he describes it, there was a clot or something that formed and broke off and moved up far enough to cause carotid artery blockage fairly quickly.

I think it goes without saying, though, that if you have any reason to suspect stroke symptoms it is important to get to a hospital as soon as possible. I think if you are able to get there early, the damage is usually minimal.

By TreeMan — On Nov 29, 2011

Interesting, I never realized the carotid artery split into two different sections as it went up to the brain. I always just thought it went to the left, because that's the one I always check if I am taking my pulse. I can feel them both now, though.

I can feel both arteries around my neck, but where do they go after that? I can't trace them any farther. Also, how does the blood return back to the heart? I have heard of the jugular vein, and I know that is in your neck, too. Is that what it is?

Would there be any way to tell if you had a block carotid artery before it was too late?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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