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Controllable Risks – Intracranial Atherosclerosis

Hardening of the arteries in the brain 

Blocked Artery

What is intracranial atherosclerosis?
Intracranial simply means “inside the skull.” Atherosclerosis is a hardening of the arteries. So, intracranial atherosclerosis is a narrowing and hardening of the arteries in the skull. Generally there are no symptoms until the arteries are so clogged with plaque that blood can no longer flow through them. In fact, most people find out they have this problem only after they have already had a stroke.

Who has it?
Because there are no symptoms, we don’t really know how many people have some degree of atherosclerosis in their brain arteries. About 70,000 people in the U.S. each year have a stroke caused by narrowed arteries in the skull about 8-10% of all ischemic or clot-caused strokes.

Am I at risk?
Risk for intracranial atherosclerosis increases if a person:

  • Smokes
  • Has high cholesterol
  • Has diabetes
  • Has high blood pressure
  • Is overweight
  • Has a family member who has had stroke or heart disease
  • Has already had a stroke and had a high degree of plaque build-up in the brain
  • Is African American, Hispanic or Asian

How do you diagnose it?
A doctor may be able to diagnose intracranial atherosclerosis by looking at the blood flow in the brain. A variety of tests can do this. Some take pictures of the blood vessels using a type of X-ray. With these tests, a doctor can see if the arteries are diseased, narrowed, enlarged or blocked altogether. Other tests use sound waves to study blood flow. Each test is quick and painless. They are ordered by a doctor and performed by a trained examiner or radiologist.

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