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.