An embolic stroke occurs when 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 blood flow, this causes a stroke.

Embolic strokes are 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 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. If the blockage lasts more than a few minutes, brain cells will begin to die off.

In an embolic stroke, a blood clot from elsewhere in your body has traveled to your brain to create the blockage.

Blood clots that lead to 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 blood flow to the brain.

These blockages are called emboli. They can form from air bubbles, fat globules, or plaque from an artery wall.

Emboli can also result from atrial fibrillation (AFib), a type of irregular heart rhythm. When the heart doesn’t beat effectively, it can cause blood to pool and clot. AFib is the most common cause of embolic strokes.

Strokes that occur due to emboli from the heart (cardioembolic strokes) are usually more severe.

Thrombotic stroke vs. embolic stroke

Thrombotic and embolic strokes are both types of ischemic strokes, meaning they occur due to blocked blood flow to the brain.

While an embolic stroke occurs due to a blot clot that has traveled to the brain, a thrombotic stroke occurs due to a blood clot in the arteries that supply blood to the brain.

Thrombotic strokes are more common than embolic strokes, according to the American Academy of Neurological Surgeons.

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Controllable risk factors for ischemic stroke include:

Some risk factors are beyond your control. For example, Black people and African Americans typically have a higher risk of stroke than people of other races.

People with a family history of stroke or who have previously had a ministroke are also at greater risk. A ministroke is also known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA).

Other uncontrollable risk factors include:

Stroke symptoms occur suddenly, often without warning. They vary from person to person, depending on which part of the brain is affected.

Embolic stroke doesn’t cause any unique symptoms. The most common stroke symptoms include:

If you notice a pronounced start to any of these symptoms, immediately call 911 or your local emergency services. They can review your symptoms and provide treatment.

Learn what to do if you think someone is having a stroke.

To diagnose an embolic stroke, a doctor will first examine your symptoms and review your medical history. To confirm the stroke and determine its cause, a doctor may use the following imaging and tests:

  • CT scan to show the blood vessels in your neck and brain in greater detail
  • MRI to detect damaged brain tissue
  • carotid ultrasound to view blood flow and depict any fatty deposits in your carotid arteries
  • cerebral angiogram to establish a detailed view of the arteries in your neck and brain
  • echocardiogram to determine the location of any blood clots that may have traveled from your heart to your brain
  • blood tests to discover characteristics of your blood that can help inform your treatment plan

Stroke treatment involves restoring blood flow to the brain as quickly as possible. A 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.

According to 2018 guidelines from the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, doctors can administer these medications up to 4.5 hours after you first experience stroke symptoms.

Surgery to mechanically remove the blood clot, known as a thrombectomy or embolectomy, can take place up to 24 hours after you first experience stroke symptoms.

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.

You may also receive aspirin or other antiplatelet medications to reduce your risk of future blood clots.

After emergency treatment, the focus shifts to 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. If you can’t care for yourself, you might benefit from an inpatient rehabilitation facility or program.

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

Common complications include:

A stroke may also lead to the following conditions:

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

According to a 2021 research review, the risk of a recurrent ischemic stroke within 1 year of a previous stroke ranges from 5.7–17.7%. Within 5 years, the risk of a second stroke ranges from 14–26%.

The review also noted that the risk of recurrent stroke was highest with cardioembolic strokes. They typically have a less favorable outlook than other types of ischemic strokes.

The risk of severe 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 preventive measures.

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

You can further prevent a stroke by adopting the following tips for a heart-healthy lifestyle:

An embolic stroke occurs when a blood clot from elsewhere in your body travels to your brain and blocks blood flow. This blood clot can originate from anywhere in the body but often starts in the heart. This causes a cardioembolic stroke, which is often more severe than other ischemic stroke types.

Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential to limit brain damage and reduce the risk of complications. After initial treatment to remove the clot, other treatments and lifestyle changes can help you reduce your risk of a future embolic stroke.