Emergency treatment for stroke depends on whether you're having an ischemic stroke blocking an artery — the most common kind — or a hemorrhagic stroke that involves 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 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 complications. You may be given:
Intravenous injection of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA). This injection of recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), also called alteplase, is considered the gold standard treatment for ischemic stroke. An injection of tPA is usually given through a vein in the arm. This potent clot-busting drug ideally is given within three hours. In some instances, tPA can be given up to 4.5 hours after stroke symptoms begin.
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 appropriate for you.
Emergency endovascular procedures. Doctors sometimes treat ischemic strokes with procedures performed directly inside the blocked blood vessel. These procedures must be performed as soon as possible, depending on features of the blood clot:
- 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 to deliver tPA directly into the area where the stroke is occurring. This is called intra-arterial thrombolysis. The time window for this treatment is somewhat longer than for intravenous tPA, but is still limited.
- Removing the clot with a stent retriever. Doctors may use a catheter to maneuver a device into the blocked blood vessel in your brain and trap and remove the clot. This procedure is particularly beneficial for people with large clots that can't be completely dissolved with tPA, though this procedure is often performed in combination with intravenous tPA.
Several large and recent studies suggest that, depending on the location of the clot and other factors, endovascular therapy might be the most effective treatment. Endovascular therapy has been shown to significantly improve outcomes and reduce long-term disability after ischemic stroke.
Other procedures. To decrease your risk of having another stroke or transient ischemic attack, your doctor may recommend a procedure to open up an artery that's narrowed by plaque. Doctors sometimes recommend the following procedures to prevent a stroke. Options will vary depending on your situation:
Carotid endarterectomy. In a carotid endarterectomy, a surgeon removes plaques from arteries that run along each side of your neck to your brain (carotid arteries). In this procedure, your surgeon makes an incision along the front of your neck, opens your carotid artery and removes plaque that blocks the carotid artery.
Your surgeon then repairs the artery with stitches or a patch made from 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 usually accesses your carotid arteries through an artery in your groin. Here, your surgeon can gently and safely navigate to the carotid arteries in your neck. A balloon is then inflated to expand the narrowed artery. Then a stent can be inserted to support the opened artery.
Emergency treatment of hemorrhagic stroke focuses on controlling your bleeding and reducing pressure in your brain. You might also need surgery to help reduce future risk.
Emergency measures. If you take warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven) or anti-platelet drugs such as clopidogrel (Plavix) to prevent blood clots, you may be given drugs or transfusions of blood products to counteract the blood thinners' effects. You may also be given drugs to lower pressure in your brain (intracranial pressure), lower your blood pressure, prevent vasospasm or prevent seizures.
Once the bleeding in your brain stops, treatment usually involves 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, your doctor may perform surgery to remove the blood and relieve pressure on your brain.
Surgical blood vessel repair. Surgery may be used to repair blood vessel abnormalities associated with hemorrhagic strokes. Your doctor may recommend one of these procedures after a stroke or if an aneurysm or arteriovenous malformation (AVM) or other type of vascular malformation caused your hemorrhagic stroke:
- Surgical clipping. A surgeon places a tiny clamp at the base of the aneurysm, to stop blood flow to it. This clamp can keep the aneurysm from bursting, or it can prevent re-bleeding of an aneurysm that has recently hemorrhaged.
- Coiling (endovascular embolization). A surgeon inserts a catheter into an artery in your groin and guides it to your brain using X-ray imaging. Tiny detachable coils are guided 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 its removal would cause too large a reduction in brain function, or if it's large or located deep within your brain.
- Stereotactic radiosurgery. Using multiple beams of highly focused radiation, stereotactic radiosurgery is an advanced minimally invasive treatment used to repair vascular malformations.
Stroke recovery and rehabilitation
After emergency treatment, stroke care focuses on helping you 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 degree of disability from your stroke. Your doctor will take into consideration your lifestyle, interests and priorities, and the availability of family members or other caregivers.
Your rehabilitation program may begin before you leave the hospital. After discharge, you might continue your program 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 pathologist
- Social worker
- Case manager
- Psychologist or psychiatrist