An embolic stroke occurs if a blood clot that forms elsewhere in the body breaks loose and travels to the brain via the bloodstream. When the clot lodges in an artery and blocks the flow of blood, this causes a stroke.

This is a type of ischemic stroke. Ischemic strokes can happen if an artery to the brain becomes blocked. The brain relies on nearby arteries to bring in blood from the heart and lungs. This blood flow allows oxygen and nutrients to reach the brain.

If one of these arteries is blocked, the brain can’t produce the energy it needs to function. These brain cells will begin to die off if the blockage lasts for more than a few minutes.

Blood clots that cause embolic stroke can form anywhere. They usually come from the heart or arteries of the upper chest and neck. After breaking free, the clot travels through the bloodstream to the brain. When it enters a blood vessel that’s too small to allow it to pass, the clot becomes stuck in place. This blocks the flow of blood to the brain.

These blockages, called emboli, can form from air bubbles, fat globules, or plaque from an artery wall. Emboli can also result from an abnormal heartbeat. This is known as atrial fibrillation. When the heart doesn’t beat effectively, it can cause blood to pool and clot.

Stroke happens suddenly, often without warning. When symptoms do occur, they differ depending on which part of the brain is affected.

The most common symptoms of stroke include:

  • difficulty speaking or understanding words
  • trouble walking
  • numbness in the face, arms, or legs
  • temporary paralysis

Embolic stroke doesn’t cause any unique symptoms. Symptoms can vary widely from person to person and stroke to stroke.

Muscular symptoms can include:

  • difficulty with coordination
  • stiff muscles
  • feelings of weakness on one side, or all, of the body
  • paralysis on one side of the body

Cognitive symptoms may consist of:

  • mental confusion
  • an altered level of consciousness, meaning you may be more lethargic
  • inability to recognize a large portion of your line of sight

Other symptoms include:

  • blurred vision
  • slurred speech
  • dizziness
  • feeling faint
  • difficulty swallowing
  • nausea
  • sleepiness
  • a severe headache

Typically, these symptoms will start suddenly. If you notice a pronounced start to any of these symptoms, you should immediately call your local emergency services. They can review your symptoms and provide treatment.

The National Stroke Association has developed a simple acronym to help you determine whether someone is having a stroke. If you think someone is experiencing a stroke, you should act FAST.

FFACEAsk the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
AARMSAsk the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
SSPEECHAsk the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
TTIMEIf you observe any of these signs, it’s time to call 911 or your local emergency services immediately.

Embolic stroke is a life-threatening condition in which every second counts. Blood flow to the brain must be restored as quickly as possible. Your doctor may do this with oral or intravenous clot-busting medications. They may also use a catheter to deliver drugs directly to your brain or to remove the clot.

Your doctor may also use one of the following imaging tests to verify and treat a stroke:

  • CT scan. This uses a series of X-rays to show the blood vessels in your neck and brain in greater detail.
  • MRI. This test uses radio waves to detect any brain tissue that’s been damaged by a stroke or brain hemorrhage.
  • Carotid ultrasound. Using detailed images, this is a way to view your blood flow and depict any fatty deposits in your carotid arties.
  • Cerebral angiogram, which involves inserting a catheter through a small incision and into your carotid or vertebral arteries. From there, your doctor can establish a detailed view of the arteries in your neck and brain.
  • Echocardiogram. This uses sound waves to determine the location of any blood clots that may have traveled from your heart to your brain.

Your doctor may also conduct blood tests to help determine:

  • how quickly your blood clots
  • whether your critical blood chemicals are unbalanced
  • your blood sugar level
  • if you have an infection

Understanding these factors can help inform your treatment plan.

To help prevent additional strokes, a surgeon can open arteries that have been narrowed by plaque. This procedure is called a carotid endarterectomy. Your doctor may also use stents to keep an artery open.

After the crisis of the stroke has passed, treatment revolves around regaining strength and recovering any function that you’ve lost. Specific treatments will depend on the area of your brain involved and the extent of the damage.

You’ll probably need ongoing outpatient care, medication, and close monitoring for some time after a stroke. In the event that you can’t care for yourself, a nursing home or rehabilitation program may be in order.

Having a stroke can have a lasting impact on your health. Whether you experience any complications depends on the part of your brain that was affected and the stroke’s severity.

Common complications include:

  • brain edema, or the swelling of the brain
  • pneumonia
  • urinary tract infection
  • seizures
  • depression
  • bedsores
  • limb contractures, or shortened muscles resulting from reduced movement in the affected area
  • shoulder pain
  • deep vein thrombosis, or blood clots in the legs

A stroke may also lead to the following conditions:

  • aphasia, or difficulty speaking and understanding speech
  • hemiparesis, or difficulty moving one side of the body
  • hemisensory deficit, or difficulty experiencing sensation on one side of the body

Your quality of life following a stroke will depend on the extent of the damage. If you’re experiencing lost function, you may be able to work with a team of specialists to recover.

Your risk of a stroke recurring is highest immediately following a stroke, and lessens over time. About three percent of people who have a stroke will have another within 30 days. About 11 percent will experience another stroke within one year, and about 26 percent will have another within five years. The risk of serious disability, coma, or death increases with each stroke.

Knowing your level of risk can help you prevent a future stroke, especially if you’re taking other preventative measures.

Controllable risk factors for ischemic stroke include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • lack of exercise
  • drug use

Some risk factors are beyond your control. For example, African Americans typically have a higher risk of stroke than people of other races. Men are at a higher risk for stroke than women are, although women are more likely to die from stroke.

People with a family history of stroke, or who have previously had a mini-stroke (also known as a transient ischemic attack) are also at greater risk.

Other uncontrollable risk factors include:

  • being over age 40
  • recent childbirth
  • autoimmune diseases such as diabetes or lupus
  • heart disease

Visit your doctor regularly if you have high cholesterol, diabetes, or a chronic autoimmune disease. Monitoring your condition and following your doctor’s recommendations can help prevent or limit potential complications from a stroke.

You should also:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Refrain from illegal drug use.