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External carotid artery and its branches: want to learn more about it?

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External carotid artery and its branches

The external carotid artery is one of the two main divisions of the common carotid artery. It stems from the aortic arch on the left side and from the brachiocephalic trunk on the right side. it climbs the lateral sides of the neck within the carotid sheath, which is found just behind the sternocleidomastoid muscle.

The carotid bifurcation occurs at the level of the thyroid cartilage in the larynx. The external carotid artery is the only division of the common carotid that gives branches to the neck region and supplies the external structures of the head and face.

Key facts
Source Common carotid artery (at the level of the thyroid cartillage in the larynx)
Branches Superior thyroid artery
Ascending pharyngeal artery
Lingual artery
Facial artery
Occipital artery
Posterior auricular artery
Maxillary artery
Superficial temporal artery

Mnemonic: Some Anatomists Like Freaking Out Poor Medical Students
Supplies (S): Thyroid gland, infrahyoid muscles, sternocleidomastoid muscle
(A): Pharynx, prevertebral muscles, middle ear, cranial meninges
(L): Intrinsic muscles of the tongue, floor of the mouth
(F): Tonsils, palate, submandibular glands
(O): Posterior region of the scalp
(P): Parotid gland, facial nerve, ear, scalp
(M): External acoustic meatus, tympanic membrane, dura mater, calvaria, mandible, gingivae, teeth; temporal, pterygoid, masseter, buccinator muscles
(S): Temporal region of the scalp
Clinical relations Carotid artery disease, atherosclerosis

This article will discuss the course and the anatomy of the external carotid artery.

Borders and relations

Medially the hyoid bone, the wall of the pharynx, the superior laryngeal nerve and the parotid gland surround the artery. Laterally, the internal carotid artery passes by in the initial phase of the external carotid artery, along with the superior laryngeal nerve posteroinferiorly.

Posterosuperiorly however, the internal and external branches of the carotid are separated by the: styloglossus muscle, the stylopharyngeus muscle, the glossopharyngeal nerve (CN IX), the pharyngeal branch of the vagus nerve (CN X), part of the parotid gland.

Anteriorly, the artery is covered by the skin, the superficial fascia, the platysma, the deep cervical fascia and the sternocleidomastoid muscle.

The nerves, vasculature and musculature that cross over the external carotid artery during its journey include the: hypoglossal nerve (CN XII), lingual nerve, ranine vein, the common facial nerve, superior thyroid veins, digastric muscle, the stylohyoid muscle, the parotid gland, the deep facial nerve, the temporal vein, internal maxillary veins.

Borders and relations
Medially Hyoid bone
Wall of the pharynx
Superior laryngeal nerve
Parotid gland
Laterally Internal carotid artery, superior laryngeal nerve
Posterosuperiorly Muscles: styloglossus, stylopharyngeus
Nerves: glossopharyngeal nerve, pharyngeal branch of the vagus nerve
Parotid gland
Anteriorly Skin, superificial fascia, platysma, deep cervical fascia, sternocleidomastoid muscle
Structures that cross over the artery Nerves: hypoglossal nerve, lingual ranine, common facial
Veins: ranine, superior thyroid veins
Muscles: digastric muscle, stylohyoid muscle


The external carotid artery has eight branches: the Superior thyroid, Ascending pharyngeal, Lingual, Facial, Occipital, Posterior auricular, Maxillary and Superficial temporal arteries. You can easily remember them with the mnemonic Some Anatomists Like Freaking Out Poor Medical Students'.

Superior thyroid artery

The superior thyroid artery (S) is the origin of the superior laryngeal artery that supplies the larynx. The main artery also supplies the thyroid gland, infrahyoid muscles and the sternocleidomastoid muscle. You can remember this by using the mnemonic "I Shall Squeeze Charlie's Glutes", which stands for the branches of the superior thyroid artery; Infrahyoid, Superior laryngeal, Sternocleidomastoid, Cricothyroid and Glandular.

Ascending pharyngeal artery

The ascending pharyngeal artery (A) ascends superiorly along the pharynx, while branching off to the pharynx, prevertebral muscles, the middle ear and the cranial meninges.

Lingual artery

The lingual artery (L) is covered by the hypoglossal nerve (CN XII), the stylohyoid muscle and the posterior belly of the digastric muscle. It runs beneath the hyoglossus muscles and branches into the deep lingual and sublingual arteries which supply the intrinsic muscles of the tongue and the floor of the mouth.

Learn everything about the tongue blood supply.

Facial artery

The facial artery (F) runs around the middle of the mandible before it enters the face, where it gives branches to the tonsils, palate and the submandibular glands.

Occipital artery

The occipital artery (O) supplies the posterior region of the scalp and grooves the base of the skull as it travels. Initially it passes deep to the posterior belly of the digastric muscle.

Posterior auricular artery

The posterior auricular artery (P) runs behind the external acoustic meatus and the mastoid process, separating the two structures. It supplies the adjacent musculature, the parotid gland, the facial nerve (CN VII), the ear and the scalp.

Maxillary artery

The maxillary artery (M) is the larger of the two terminal branches which can precede one another depending on which anatomist you ask. Its branches supply:

Why not test yourself on the muscles innervated by the branches of the maxillary artery with flashcards?  

Superficial temporal artery

The superficial temporal artery (S) supplies only the temporal region of the scalp, as it is the smaller terminal branch and does not have additional named branches or divisions.

Superficial temporal artery (lateral-right view)


If one looks back to the section of this article termed ‘Branches’, each major artery has been assigned a letter, which corresponds to the first letter of a word in each mnemonic. The order of arteries listed corresponds to the order they branch off from the external carotid artery as it ascends and follows the order of the words in each mnemonic. There are three different mnemonics, of which only one is needed in order to remember the branches.

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  2. Some Anatomists Like Freaking Out Poor Medical Students
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Carotid artery disease

Carotid artery disease is a disorder of the common carotid artery or either of its main divisions. It occurs when plaque like growths start to form in these major arteries and limit the amount of blood that flows to the head and neck region. This ailment can become extremely serious, because it can cause ischemia to vital organs such as the brain and it also increases the risk of clot formation.

The best way to treat and also avoid the buildup of arterial plaque is to minimize the risk of it forming in the first place by eating a healthy and well balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity and avoiding situations where chronic stress is a major factor.

External carotid artery and its branches: want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

What do you prefer to learn with?

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

Show references


  • Dr Henry Knipe, Dr Frank Gaillard. External carotid artery branches (mnemonic). Radiopaedia.org.
  • Frank H. Netter, MD, Atlas of Human Anatomy, Fifth Edition, Saunders - Elsevier, Chapter 1 Head and Neck, Subchapter 13 Cerebral Vasculature, Guide Head and Neck: Cerebral Vasculature - Vascular Supply to the Brain, Page 79.
  • What is carotid artery disease? NIH - National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. November 01, 2010.


  • External carotid artery (ventral view) - Begoña Rodriguez
  • External carotid artery (lateral-right view) - Paul Kim
  • External carotid artery - Paul Kim
  • External carotid artery - lateral-right view - Paul Kim
  • Superior thyroid artery (lateral-right view) - Paul Kim
  • Ascending pharyngeal artery (dorsal view) - Paul Kim
  • Lingual artery - Paul Kim
  • Facial artery (lateral-right view) - Paul Kim
  • Occipital artery (lateral-right view) - Paul Kim
  • Posterior auricular artery (lateral-right view) - Paul Kim
  • Maxillary artery (lateral-right view) - Paul Kim
  • Superficial temporal artery (lateral-right view) - Paul Kim
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