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What is a Carotid Artery Ultrasound?

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  • Written By: J.M. Willhite
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 06 September 2016
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A carotid artery ultrasound is a painless diagnostic test used to evaluate the condition of the carotid arteries, located on either side of the neck. The test is usually administered to check for blockages that may contribute to various conditions, including stroke and arterial narrowing, or stenosis. Often performed in the presence of certain medical conditions, there are generally no preparatory measures necessary unless otherwise specified by one’s physician during consultation. There are no risks associated with the administration of a carotid artery ultrasound.

Working on the same principle as a prenatal ultrasound, a carotid artery ultrasound uses sound waves to create a picture of these essential arterial passages. The administration of an ultrasound is used to evaluate the condition of the carotid artery and detect any abnormalities, such as blood clots or arterial narrowing due to the presence of plaque that may hinder proper blood flow. Emitted through a small device called a transducer, the sound waves are essentially reflected by the tissues and blood vessels surrounding and comprising the carotid artery and are transmitted to a visual monitor to create an image of the targeted area. Any narrowing or blockages within the arterial passage will likewise reflect the sound waves and present in the image.

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The carotid arteries play an essential role in regulating proper blood flow to and from the brain. Any blockages could lead to potentially debilitating conditions or death. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions that affect arterial function, such as atherosclerosis, may undergo a carotid ultrasound as a precautionary measure to evaluate the condition of these arterial passages. Those with a history of blood clots or stroke may also have periodic carotid ultrasounds to assess their condition and determine if any changes have occurred. In the absence of a pre-existing condition or noted medical history, a carotid artery ultrasound may be ordered if any abnormalities in blood flow or odd circulatory sounds, such as a bruit, are detected during a routine examination.

There are no preparatory measures required for a carotid artery ultrasound. Conducted in a clinical or hospital setting, the test is usually administered in the radiology department by a trained technician and requires that the individual lay motionless on a table with his or her head supported. After a clear gel is applied to the area of focus, to aid sound wave transmission, the attending technician passes the transducer over the artery. The entire test usually takes less than 30 minutes to complete.

Normal results are indicative of unimpaired blood flow through the carotid artery. Abnormal results generally indicate the presence of some kind of obstruction adversely affecting proper blood flow, such as arterial narrowing or blood clots. In some cases, additional testing may be ordered to further evaluate the cause of the obstructed blood flow. The individual may be given specific instructions regarding suggested lifestyle and dietary changes that he or she may need to make to slow the progression of arterial narrowing as associated with atherosclerosis. Depending on the severity of the blockage, surgery may be recommended to remove the blockage to prevent a stroke or other potentially debilitating or fatal complications.

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