Emergency treatment for stroke depends on whether you're having an ischemic stroke blocking an artery the most common kind or a hemorrhagic stroke involving bleeding into the brain.
To treat an ischemic stroke, doctors must quickly restore blood flow to your brain.
Emergency treatment with medications. Therapy with clot-busting drugs (thrombolytics) must start within 4.5 hours if they are given into the vein and the sooner, the better. Quick treatment not only improves your chances of survival but also may reduce the complications from your stroke. You may be given:
Aspirin. Aspirin, an anti-thrombotic drug, is an immediate treatment after an ischemic stroke to reduce the likelihood of having another stroke. Aspirin prevents blood clots from forming. In the emergency room, you may be given a dose of aspirin. The dose may vary, but if you already take a daily aspirin for its blood-thinning effect, you may want to make a note of that on an emergency medical card so doctors will know if you've already taken some aspirin.
Other blood-thinning drugs, such as heparin, also may be given, but this drug isn't proven to be beneficial in the emergency setting so it's used infrequently. Clopidogrel (Plavix), warfarin (Coumadin), or aspirin in combination with extended release dipyridamole (Aggrenox) may also be used, but these aren't usually used in the emergency room setting.
- Intravenous injection of tissue plasminogen activator (TPA). Some people who are having an ischemic stroke can benefit from an injection of a recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (TPA), also called alteplase, usually given through a vein in the arm. This potent clot-busting drug needs to be given within 4.5 hours after stroke symptoms begin if it's given into the vein. This drug restores blood flow by dissolving the blood clot causing your stroke, and it may help people who have had strokes recover more fully. Your doctor will consider certain risks, such as potential bleeding in the brain, to determine if TPA is the most appropriate treatment for you.
Emergency procedures. Doctors sometimes treat ischemic strokes with procedures that must be performed as soon as possible.
- Medications delivered directly to the brain. Doctors may insert a long, thin tube (catheter) through an artery in your groin and thread it to your brain, and then release TPA directly into the area where the stroke is occurring. The time window for this treatment is somewhat longer than for intravenous TPA but still limited.
- Mechanical clot removal. Doctors may use a catheter to maneuver a tiny device into your brain to physically grab and remove the clot.
Other procedures. To decrease your risk of having another stroke or TIA, your doctor may recommend a procedure to open up an artery that's moderately to severely narrowed by plaque. Doctors sometimes recommend these procedures to prevent a stroke. Options may include:
- Carotid endarterectomy. In a carotid endarterectomy, a surgeon removes fatty deposits (plaques) from your carotid arteries that run along each side of your neck to your brain. In this procedure, your surgeon makes an incision along the front of your neck, opens your carotid artery, and removes fatty deposits (plaques) that block the carotid artery. Your surgeon then repairs the artery with stitches or a patch made with a vein or artificial material (graft). The procedure may reduce your risk of ischemic stroke. However, a carotid endarterectomy also involves risks, especially for people with heart disease or other medical conditions.
- Angioplasty and stents. In an angioplasty, a surgeon inserts a catheter with a mesh tube (stent) and balloon on the tip into an artery in your groin and guides it to the blocked carotid artery in your neck. Your surgeon inflates the balloon in the narrowed artery and inserts a mesh tube (stent) into the opening to keep your artery from becoming narrowed after the procedure.
Emergency treatment of hemorrhagic stroke focuses on controlling your bleeding and reducing pressure in your brain. Surgery also may be used to help reduce future risk.
Emergency measures. If you take warfarin (Coumadin) or anti-platelet drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavix) to prevent blood clots, you may be given drugs or transfusions of blood products to counteract their effects. You may also be given drugs to lower pressure in your brain (intracranial pressure), lower your blood pressure or prevent seizures. People having a hemorrhagic stroke can't be given clot-busters such as aspirin and TPA, because these drugs may worsen bleeding.
Once the bleeding in your brain stops, treatment usually involves bed rest and supportive medical care while your body absorbs the blood. Healing is similar to what happens while a bad bruise goes away. If the area of bleeding is large, surgery may be used in certain cases to remove the blood and relieve pressure on the brain.
Surgical blood vessel repair. Surgery may be used to repair certain blood vessel abnormalities associated with hemorrhagic strokes. Your doctor may recommend one of these procedures after a stroke or if you're at high risk of a spontaneous aneurysm or arteriovenous malformation (AVM) rupture:
- Surgical clipping. A surgeon places a tiny clamp at the base of the aneurysm, to stop blood flow to it. This can keep the aneurysm from bursting, or it can prevent re-bleeding of an aneurysm that has recently hemorrhaged.
- Coiling (endovascular embolization). In this procedure, a surgeon inserts a catheter into an artery in your groin and guides it to your brain using X-ray imaging. Your surgeon then guides tiny detachable coils into the aneurysm (aneurysm coiling). The coils fill the aneurysm, which blocks blood flow into the aneurysm and causes the blood to clot.
- Surgical AVM removal. Surgeons may remove a smaller AVM if it's located in an accessible area of your brain, to eliminate the risk of rupture and lower the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. However, it's not always possible to remove an AVM if it's too large or if it's located deep within your brain.
Stroke recovery and rehabilitation
Following emergency treatment, stroke care focuses on helping you regain your strength, recover as much function as possible and return to independent living. The impact of your stroke depends on the area of the brain involved and the amount of tissue damaged. If your stroke affected the right side of your brain, your movement and sensation on the left side of your body may be affected. If your stroke damaged the brain tissue on the left side of your brain, your movement and sensation on the right side of your body may be affected. Brain damage to the left side of your brain may cause speech and language disorders. In addition, if you've had a stroke, you may have problems with breathing, swallowing, balancing and vision.
Most stroke survivors receive treatment in a rehabilitation program. Your doctor will recommend the most rigorous therapy program you can handle based on your age, overall health and your degree of disability from your stroke. Your doctor will take into consideration your lifestyle, interests and priorities, and availability of family members or other caregivers.
Your rehabilitation program may begin before you leave the hospital. It may continue in a rehabilitation unit of the same hospital, another rehabilitation unit or skilled nursing facility, an outpatient unit, or your home.
Every person's stroke recovery is different. Depending on your condition, your treatment team may include:
- Doctor trained in brain conditions (neurologist)
- Rehabilitation doctor (physiatrist)
- Physical therapist
- Occupational therapist
- Recreational therapist
- Speech therapist
- Social worker
- Case manager
- Psychologist or psychiatrist