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Difference Between the Jugular Vein and the Carotid Artery

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There are blood vessels in the neck with the crucial role of helping circulate blood to and from your brain and face. In colloquial language, two of these blood vessels are simply called the “jugular” and the “carotid.”

How are the jugular vein and carotid artery different?

The main difference between the jugular and carotid comes from the type of blood vessel that they are: the jugular pertains to a vein, which channels deoxygenated blood from the head back to the heart, while the carotid is an artery that helps supply the head with fresh oxygenated blood.

What is the Jugular Vein?

Jugular veins are major passageways through which deoxygenated blood returns from the head and back to the heart.

You can find three pairs of jugular veins in your neck:

  • Anterior jugular veins (AJVs). The word “anterior” indicates that these blood vessels are found at the front side of your neck, with each anterior vein just beside your windpipe. These are the smallest jugular veins. Each vessel drains into the exterior jugular vein.
  • Internal jugular veins (IJVs). The internal jugular veins draw blood from the brain itself, as well as the neck and the shallow (superficial) parts of the face. These veins run beneath the neck’s major muscles, making them less prominent. They join with the subclavian veins to become the brachiocephalic veins.
  • External jugular veins (EJVs). This pair of long veins drains blood from the areas outside the skull, such as the scalp and deeper areas of the face. They snake down on each side of the spine. They are called “external” veins because, unlike the interior pair, they lie above the major neck muscles and run closer to the surface.

What is the Carotid Artery?

The carotid arteries are large blood vessels that allow oxygenated blood to nourish the brain and the rest of the head.

For most of the neck’s length, there is only one pair of carotid arteries. However, each artery branches (bifurcates) into an external and internal carotid artery near the ear. These arteries, in turn, branch out further to nourish different regions of the head.

  • Common carotid arteries. These are the large carotids found on each side of your neck. The left artery emerges directly from the aortic arch, while the right splits off from the brachiocephalic artery.
    • External carotid arteries. These arteries supply blood to both the superficial and deep regions of the face, as well as the neck, scalp, meninges, and the base of the skull. They eventually join a major system of arteries feeding the brain called the circle of Willis.
    • Internal carotid arteries. The internal carotid arteries are crucial vessels that primarily supply blood to the brain and the eyes.

Differences between the Jugular Vein and Carotid Artery

Function

The jugular veins, like any other vein, drain deoxygenated blood from the tissues and organs of the head and neck and allow its return to the heart. Meanwhile, the carotid arteries help distribute blood up to the head.

This distinction between an artery and a vein is the primary difference between the jugular and carotid blood vessels.

Blood Characteristics

When the heart pumps blood up to the head via the carotid arteries, the blood contains plenty of oxygen and other nutrients to nourish the brain, face and other organs. These nutrients exit the blood and enter the tissues via the capillaries.

In exchange, the newly deoxygenated blood receives wastes and other cellular by-products and drains back down into the veins.

Pairs

The common carotid arteries make up the sole pair of carotids in the veins, but each common carotid artery branches out into external and internal carotid arteries, totalling four carotids.

There are more jugular veins, with the neck containing a pair each of anterior, external and internal jugular veins. 

Parent Blood Vessel

As blood comes down through the jugular veins, they eventually drain into the following venous blood vessels:

  • the external jugular veins drain directly into the subclavian veins,
  • the anterior jugular veins either drain into the EJVs or the subclavian veins,
  • While the internal jugular veins join with the subclavian veins to form the brachiocephalic veins.

In turn, the brachiocephalic veins unite to form the superior vena cava, which leads blood back into the right atrium of the heart.

On the other hand, the left common carotid artery (CCA) emerges directly from the aortic arch in the thorax, while the right CCA originates from the brachiocephalic artery.

Branches and Tributaries

Moving up the neck, the internal and external carotid arteries split into numerous smaller branches of arteries that distribute blood to various head tissues. These branches include the:

  • External carotid arteries (ECAs)
    • Superficial temporal artery
    • Facial artery
    • Occipital artery
    • Ascending pharyngeal artery
    • Lingual artery
  • Internal carotid arteries (ICAs)
    • Ophthalmic artery
    • Anterior choroidal artery
    • Posterior communicating artery

There are, in total, eight arteries branching from the ECAs; the other three are the maxillary artery, superior thyroid artery and posterior auricular artery. To aid in memorizing all eight, cardiology students have the mnemonic SALFOPMS, meaning “Some Anatomists Like Freaking Out Poor Med Students.”

The three primary pairs receive blood from various parts of the head through smaller veins called “tributaries”, which include the following:

  • External jugular veins
    • Cervical veins
    • Suprascapular veins
    • Anterior jugular veins
  • Internal jugular veins
    • Facial veins
    • Lingual (tongue) veins
    • Pharyngeal veins
    • Inferior petrosal sinus
    • Superior and middle thyroid veins
    • Occipital vein (uncommon)
  • Anterior jugular veins
    • Laryngeal veins
    • Small and inferior thyroid vein

Notable Diseases

Jugular vein distention (JVD) pertains to increased pressure coming from the superior vena cava that causes the jugular veins to bulge out, or “distend” visibly. While not painful, it is associated with pulmonary hypertension, right-sided heart failure, and stenosis in the tricuspid valve. 

Having low blood pressure and JVD can also suggest an embolism (blood clot) in the lung, or a collapsed lung.

Carotid artery disease occurs when the carotids become narrower due to atherosclerosis, or the build-up of lipids, calcium, wastes and other substances on the walls of the artery. Because less blood is able to pass through these blood vessels, the brain receives a reduced supply of oxygen and nutrients. 

If the carotids become narrow enough, it can cause a stroke, as brain tissue begins to die after a few minutes without an adequate intake of oxygen.

Comparison Chart: Jugular Vein Vs Carotid Artery

AreasJugular VeinCarotid Artery
FunctionVeinArtery
Blood CharacteristicsDeoxygenated, carries wastesOxygenated, carries nutrients
PairsThree pairs, totalling six veinsTwo arteries, splitting into four
Parent Blood VesselSubclavian and brachiocephalic veins, EJVs (anterior)Aortic arch (left) and brachiocephalic artery (right)
Branches and TributariesCervical, facial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and lingual veins; etc.Ophthalmic, facial, occipital, and lingual artery; etc.
Notable DiseasesJugular vein distention (JVD)Carotid artery disease (CAD)

How are the Jugular Veins and Carotid Arteries similar?

The carotid arteries and jugular veins are vital blood vessels that enable the complete circulation of blood in and out of the organs and tissues of the head. Both are found in the neck and branch out into smaller arteries.

Like all other blood vessels, they are composed of several “tunics,” or layers of different tissue types:

  • Tunica intima. As the innermost blood vessel layer, this tunic is in contact with the blood, facilitating its smooth passage. It also aids in maintaining blood pressure, keeps blood clots from forming, and removes toxins.
  • Tunica media. The middle layer is built from smooth muscle and contains plenty of elastic fibers that aid in vascular contraction and relaxation. 
  • Tunica adventitia. This outermost layer preserves the structure of the blood vessel, and facilitates the exchange of nutrients, gases and wasters between the blood and the tissues.

FAQ

What does “go for the jugular” mean?

The phrase “to go for the jugular” refers to a serious, straightforward and unrestrained attempt at attacking someone, usually in the sense of a sharp criticism, although it can also mean physical harm. 

It is commonly encountered when describing a verbal confrontation or debate, when the attacker attempts to defeat their opponent by calling out the most vulnerable points in their argument.

This term reflects the jugular veins being a vital but vulnerable spot in the neck. If these veins are severed, they can very quickly lead to death. However, the term also commonly confuses the jugular veins with the carotid arteries, which would spurt blood more violently when severed.

How can I keep my carotid artery healthy?

Preventing atherosclerosis, and thus ensuring that the brain always receives enough oxygen-rich blood, is key to keeping the carotid arteries and other blood vessels healthy.

You can reduce the likelihood of developing CAD by targeting its primary risk factors.

- High blood pressure. Changes in your lifestyle, such as exercising at least 30 min a day, cutting down on salt and alcohol, and eliminating added sugars, can lower your BP to healthy levels.

- Cigarette smoking. Both tobacco smoking and e-smoking damage the walls of your arteries, contributing to the build-up and hardening of plaque.

- High cholesterol levels. LDL (low-density lipoproteins) are “bad” cholesterols that stick to your artery walls and form plaques. Eating foods with “good” cholesterols (HDLs), such as olive oil and fatty fish, and cutting out trans and saturated fats, helps lower LDL levels.

Conclusion 

The neck contains major blood vessels, such as the jugulars and carotids.

The key difference between the jugular veins and carotid arteries is that the former returns deoxygenated blood from the head back to the heart, while the latter resupplies the head with oxygenated blood.

The blood passing through the carotids is rich in oxygen and other nutrients. These nutrients exit the blood and enter the tissues of the brain, eyes, and other parts of the head, while wastes from these tissues enter the blood as it goes back down. 

There are three pairs of jugular veins – the anterior, external and internal JVs. The first two drain into the subclavian vein, while the IJV merges with it to form the brachiocephalic vein. 

Meanwhile, there is only one pair of carotids – the common carotid arteries (CCAs). The left CCA comes up from the aortic arch, and the right CCA’s origin is the brachiocephalic artery. Each CCA splits into the internal and external carotids near the ear.

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About the Author: Nicolas Seignette

Nicolas Seignette, who holds a scientific baccalaureate, began his studies in mathematics and computer science applied to human and social sciences (MIASHS). He then continued his university studies with a DEUST WMI (Webmaster and Internet professions) at the University of Limoges before finishing his course with a professional license specialized in the IT professions. On 10Differences, he is in charge of the research and the writing of the articles concerning technology, sciences and mathematics.
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