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External Carotid Artery and its Branches

Contents

Overview

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 artery 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.

External carotid artery - ventral view 

Borders & 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.

External carotid artery - lateral-right view

Posterosuperiorly however, the internal and external branches of the carotid are separated by the: 

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

External carotid artery

The nerves, vasculature and musculature that cross over the external carotid artery during its journey include the:

  • hypoglossal nerve (CN XII)
  • lingual nerve
  • ranine nerve
  • 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

External carotid artery - lateral-right view

Branches

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.

Superior thyroid artery - lateral-right view

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.

Ascending pharyngeal artery - dorsal view

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.

Lingual artery

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.

Facial artery - lateral-right view

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.

Occipital artery - lateral-right view

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.

Posterior auricular artery - lateral-right view

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:

Maxillary artery - lateral-right view

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

Mnemonics

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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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.

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Show references

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.

Author:

  • Dr. Alexandra Sieroslawska

Illustrators:

  • 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
© Unless stated otherwise, all content, including illustrations are exclusive property of Kenhub GmbH, and are protected by German and international copyright laws. All rights reserved.

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