Dr. Deanna Nelson

According to the National Institutes of Health, strokes affect over half a million people each year, and are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 30% of strokes are caused by carotid artery disease.

“The hallmark of carotid disease and the reason we fix it, is stroke prevention,” says Dr. Deanna L. Nelson, a vascular surgeon with Premier Surgical Associates. “Carotid disease can be silent,” she says, “so some people don’t have symptoms. But there are some signs people can watch for that may indicate they’re at risk for having a stroke.”

The carotid arteries are the blood vessels on each side of the neck that carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain, head, and face. For some people, having a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or “mini-stroke”, is the first sign of carotid artery disease. “TIA’s are small strokes that don’t last,” Dr. Nelson explains. “Patients will say something to me like, ‘I tried to pick up my coffee cup this morning but I couldn’t.’”

Trouble speaking or understanding speech, sudden numbness or weakness in one side of the face or limbs, or dizziness are signs of stroke and may also be indicators that someone needs to be screened for carotid artery disease. And since vascular disease is often systemic, anyone who’s had blockages in their heart or legs should be checked for carotid disease as well.

“The good thing is that the carotid arteries are very well visualized with ultrasound, so it’s easy and painless to diagnose the disease,” says Dr. Nelson.

Treatment depends on the severity of the carotid blockage. Patients with mild or moderate carotid disease are typically monitored with ultrasounds every six to twelve months. If a carotid artery is 80% blocked, the patient is at a high stroke risk and will be advised to have surgery to clear the artery.

Dr. Nelson emphasizes that anyone with vascular disease needs to make lifestyle changes, such as stop smoking and lower their cholesterol to decrease their risk of having a stroke. She adds, “Anyone with significant vascular disease should be followed by vascular surgeon, because the data is changing so much now with new trials, processes, and procedures.”

Premier Surgical Associates is the largest general and vascular surgical group in the Knoxville region—providing comprehensive surgical care for carotid artery disease and other specialties—with referrals from across the entire East Tennessee region. To learn more about surgical treatments for vascular disease, visit  the Premier Vascular Surgery webpage.