Ultrasound imaging of the carotid arteries, also known as carotid ultrasound, examines the body’s two carotid arteries, providing detailed images of these blood vessels and information about the blood flowing through them. These arteries are located on each side of the neck and carry blood from the heart to the brain.

A Doppler ultrasound study is usually an integral part of a carotid ultrasound examination. Doppler ultrasound is a special ultrasound technique that evaluates blood flow through a blood vessel.

Ultrasound imaging uses a small probe, called a transducer, and gel placed directly on the skin. High-frequency sound waves travel from the probe, through the gel, into the body. The probe collects the sounds that bounce back. A computer uses those sound waves to create the images for the exam.

Ultrasound is painless and non-invasive.

When would I get an Ultrasound of the Carotid?

Carotid ultrasound is most frequently performed to detect narrowing, known as stenosis, of the carotid artery. This is a condition that substantially increases the risk of stroke.

Carotid ultrasound may also be performed if a patient has high blood pressure or a carotid bruit, which is an abnormal sound in the neck that is heard with a stethoscope. In some cases, carotid ultrasound is also performed in preparation for coronary artery bypass surgery. 

Your medical provider may also recommend an carotid ultrasound if you have health risk factors such as:

  • diabetes
  • elevated blood cholesterol
  • a family history of stroke or heart disease.

A carotid ultrasound is also considered to be appropriate in order to:

  • locate a hematoma, a collection of clotted blood that may slow and eventually stop blood flow
  • check the state of the carotid artery after surgery to restore normal blood flow
  • verify the position of a metal stent placed to maintain carotid blood flow.

What Will I Experience?

For most ultrasound exams, you will lie on your back on an exam table. You may have your position adjusted to either side in order to improve the quality of the images captured during the exam.

An ultrasound technologist will apply a warm water-based gel to the area of the body being studied. The gel will help the transducer make secure contact with the body and eliminate air pockets between the transducer and the skin that can block the sound waves from passing into your body. The transducer is placed on the body and moved back and forth over the area of interest until the desired images are captured.

There is usually no discomfort from pressure as the transducer is pressed against the area being examined. However, if scanning is performed over an area that is tender or sensitive, you may feel some pressure or minor discomfort from the transducer.

Once the exam is complete, the clear ultrasound gel will be wiped off your skin. Any portions that are not wiped off will dry quickly. The ultrasound gel does not usually stain or discolor clothing.

Typically, ultrasound imaging of the carotid arteries takes approximately 60 minutes to complete.