Treatment for a stroke should begin as soon as possible. The quicker emergency treatment begins, the greater the chance of preventing any lasting damage. Treatment depends on the type of stroke a person is having.
Emergency Treatment for Ischemic Stroke
Emergency treatment for ischemic stroke must start within 4.5 hours of the event. Treatment for an ischemic stroke—the most common kind that involves a blood clot in the brain—will be to break up the clot that is blocking or disrupting blood flow in the brain.
One of the most common treatments doctors use during stroke emergencies is simple aspirin. Proven effective for thinning the blood, aspirin can help get blood to the affected area. If you're already taking aspirin for heart disease or other conditions, you or a family member should inform your emergency room doctor.
Your doctor may also administer other drugs designed to break up clots. These drugs can be injected via via a catheter—or thin tube—through your arteries. The most common medication used to treat stroke is known as tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), and will help break up clot that has formed in the brain. Other oral drugs that may eventually be used to thin the blood and reduce risk of future stroke include clopidogrel and warfarin. Statins have also been shown to reduce the incidence of stroke.
Learn more by reading Stroke Drugs.
If drugs do not adequately break up the clot, and if the stroke is acute (localized to one area) your doctor may use a catheter to access the clot and remove it manually using specialized tools. The catheter (a thin, flexible tube) is threaded through blood vessels towards the area where the clot is lodged. There, the clot is either removed by a corkscrew-like device attached to the catheter, or by clot-busting agents administered through the catheter directly to the clot.
In some cases, a large stroke may lead to serious swelling in the brain. If drugs do not adequately relieve this swelling, surgical intervention can become necessary. The goal of decompressive craniotomy is to prevent the pressure inside the skull from building up to dangerous levels. In the procedure, the surgeon will open up a flap of bone in the skull that is in the area of the swelling. Once the pressure is relieved, the flap will be returned.
Preventive Treatments for Ischemic Stroke
After emergency procedures, your doctor will evaluate the health of your arteries and determine what needs to be done to prevent another stroke or other problems.
For the most part, post-stroke preventative treatment focuses on improvement of cardiovascular health. This might mean lowering blood pressure or better managing lipids (cholesterol and fatty acids), and is likely to include some combination of improved exercise, healthier diet, and/or medications to help.
Carotid endarterectomy is typically ordered for patients who have shown stroke-like symptoms, such as having a transient ischemic stroke. During this procedure, a surgeon removes plaques and blood clots from the arteries in your neck. This surgery carries the risks associated with any surgery, but also that it may trigger another stroke if plaques or blood clots are released during the surgery. Protective measures are used to help reduce these risks.
Treatment for Hemorrhagic Stroke
Unlike ischemic strokes, treatments for hemorrhagic strokes do not involve blood thinners, as thinning the blood would increase the amount of blood being lost in the brain. If you are already taking blood-thinning medications, your doctor may administer drugs to combat these effects or lower your blood pressure to allow the bleeding in the brain to slow.
Depending on the damage to the vessel in the brain, surgery may be required after a hemorrhagic stroke. Surgery can not only repair damage, but also help prevent future problems. However, the problem must be close enough to the brain's surface so a surgeon can access the vessel.
If a surgeon can easily access the affected artery, he or she may surgically remove it. This can reduce the risk of future rupture, but depending on the location of the aneurysm, surgical removal may not be possible.
If the damaged artery is not easily accessible for surgery, catheterization is an option. Using a catheter, a surgeon may use a technique called coiling or aneurysm embolization. Once a surgeon finds the ruptured vessel, he or she releases a coil—made of soft platinum wire narrower than a strand of hair—into the area. This provides a type of net where blood can clot and seal off the hole from other arteries.
Your doctor may recommend clipping the aneurysm by permanently installing a clamp to prevent it from bleeding further or bursting. Aneurysm clipping is a surgical procedure, and is usually only recommended when coiling is deemed unlikely to be effective. Clipping is significantly more invasive than coiling.
Rehabilitation After a Stroke
Following a stroke, rehabilitation depends on the extent of the damage and what part of the brain was affected. For instance, if the stroke occurred in the right side of your brain, you may need more physical rehabilitation focusing on walking up and down stairs, getting dressed or bringing food to your mouth as the right side of the brain controls visual-spatial functions.
You may need rehabilitation or corrective measures to help with breathing, vision, bowel or bladder control, speech, or other problems.
Learn more by reading about Stroke Complications.