What is a carotid artery ultrasound?

A carotid artery ultrasound is a painless diagnostic test used to assess the condition of the carotid arteries, located on both sides of the neck. The test is usually given to check for blockages that may contribute to various conditions, such as stroke and arterial narrowing, or stenosis. Often performed in the presence of certain medical conditions, there are generally no preparatory steps necessary unless otherwise specified by the physician during the consultation. There are no risks associated with administering an ultrasound scan of the carotid artery.

Working on the same principle as a prenatal ultrasound, a carotid artery ultrasound uses sound waves to create an image of these essential arterial vessels. The administration of an ultrasound is used to assess the condition of the carotid artery and detect any abnormalities, such as blood clots or arterial narrowing due to the presence of plaque that can interfere with proper blood flow. Delivered through a small device called a transducer, the sound waves are essentially reflected off the tissues and blood vessels that surround and comprise the carotid artery and transmitted to a visual monitor to create an image of the target area. Any narrowing or blockage within the arterial passageway will equally reflect the sound waves and the image present.

The carotid arteries play an essential role in regulating proper blood flow to and from the brain. Any blockage could lead to potentially debilitating conditions or death. People with pre-existing medical conditions that affect arterial function, such as atherosclerosis, may undergo carotid ultrasound as a precautionary measure to assess the condition of these arterial vessels. People with a history of blood clots or stroke may also have regular carotid ultrasound scans to assess their condition and determine if changes have occurred. In the absence of a pre-existing condition or noted medical history, an ultrasound of the carotid artery may be ordered if blood flow abnormalities or unusual circulatory sounds, such as a murmur, are detected during a routine exam.

No preparatory measures are required for an ultrasound of the carotid artery. Performed in a clinical or hospital setting, the test is usually administered in the radiology department by a trained technician and requires the individual to lie still on a table with their head supported. After applying a clear gel to the targeted area to aid in sound wave transmission, the treating technician passes the transducer over the artery. The entire test generally takes less than 30 minutes to complete.

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

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