Danny R. Rose, Jr., MD

Hackam DG. Prognosis of Asymptomatic Carotid Artery Occlusion: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Stroke. 2016

Although carotid artery occlusion is estimated to account for 10-15% of all ischemic strokes and transient ischemic attacks, there is little consensus regarding the long-term prognosis of asymptomatic carotid artery occlusion (ACAO), which is most often found incidentally during workup for cerebrovascular disease. Hackam sought to shed light on this issue by conducting a systematic review of studies that enrolled patients with ACAO that collected follow-up information on the occurrence of ipsilateral ischemic stroke as an outcome measure. 

A total of 13 studies were included in the meta-analysis. The studies enrolled 4406 patients, 718 of whom had ACAO (16%). The median age of patients with ACAO was 67 and 23% were female.  All but two studies used ultrasound to define ACAO diagnostically; however the use of angiography was high overall (66% of subjects). Median follow-up was 2.80 years, with an annual ipsilateral stroke rate of 1.3% (95% CI 0.4-2.1%). Two-year and 5-year rates of stroke were 2.5% and 6.3%, respectively. There was substantial heterogeneity in the base estimate (I2=53%). Annual total stroke was 2.0% (95% CI 0.9-3%; I2=40%). 

Eleven studies reported on ipsilateral TIA, with an annual rate of 1% (95% CI 0.3-1.8% I2=40%) and an annual total TIA rate of 3.0% (95% CI 1.9-4.1% I2=0).  Seven studies reported mortality, with an annual rate of death of 7.7% with marked heterogeneity (95% CI 4.3-11.2% I2=83%). Six studies reported stroke-related death, with an annual rate of 1.1% (95% CI 0.07-2.1% I2=63%). Cardiac death was more frequent at 3.3% per year (95% CI 1.2-5.4% I2=83%). In the prescribed subgroup analysis, studies published on or after the year 2000 had a statistically significantly lower aggregate ipsilateral stroke rate than studies published before 2000 (0.9% to 1.5%, p=0.003). Adjusting for publication bias suggested a revised ipsilateral stroke rate of 0.3% per year (95% CI -0.4 to 1.1%).

Although the study was limited by significant heterogeneity, it suggests that the risk from ACAO is low. With subgroup analysis of studies published after the advent of contemporary medical management of vascular disease and trim-and-fill analysis suggesting a lack of studies published to the left of the mean, the rate is likely lower than the 1.3% per year grand mean that was reported. However, the annual risk of death was quite high (7.7%), likely attributable to ACAO being a surrogate marker of systemic atherosclerosis, possibly carrying a higher risk of cardiac death. 

Further study of this population is warranted. Potential avenues for future study would include a prospective cohort of patients with medically managed carotid stenosis and occlusion with matched controls, following a variety of vascular outcomes. Perfusion or more in-depth angiographic imaging to identify a potential subset of patients at higher risk of stroke could also be of use.