Carotid sinus massage involves rubbing the large part of the arterial wall at the point where the common carotid artery, located in the neck, divides into its two main branches.
Sinus, in this case, means an area in a blood vessel that is bigger than the rest of the vessel. This is a normal dilation of the vessel. Located in the neck just below the angle of the jaw, the carotid sinus sits above the point where the carotid artery divides into its two main branches. Rubbing the carotid sinus stimulates an area in the artery wall that contains nerve endings.
These nerves respond to changes in blood pressure and are capable of slowing the heart rate. The response to this simple procedure often slows a rapid heart rate (for example, atrial flutter or atrial tachycardia) and can provide important diagnostic information to the physician.
The patient will be asked to lie down, with the neck fully extended and the head turned away from the side being massaged. While watching an electrocardiogram monitor, the doctor will gently touch the carotid sinus. If there is no change in the heart rate on the monitor, the pressure is applied more firmly with a gentle rotating motion. After massaging one side of the neck, the massage will be repeated on the other side. Both sides of the neck are never massaged at the same time.
The physician must be sure there is no evidence of blockage in the carotid artery before performing the procedure. Massage in a blocked area might cause a clot to break loose and cause a stroke.
Carotid sinus massage will slow the heart rate during episodes of atrial flutter, fibrillation, and some tachycardias. It has been known to stop the arrhythmia completely. If the procedure is being done to help diagnose angina pectoris, massaging the carotid sinus may make the discomfort go away.