• Brainstem Stroke

    (Stroke, Brainstem)


    The brainstem is located directly above the spinal cord. It helps controls involuntary functions like heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure. Nerves that are used for eye movement, hearing, talking, chewing, and swallowing are also controlled by the brainstem. Normal brainstem function is vital to survival.
    A brainstem stroke happens when the brain’s blood supply is interrupted in this area. This type of stroke can result in death, since the damaged brainstem can no longer control the body’s vital functions.
    Brain Stem
    Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.


    There are two main types of stroke:
    • Ischemic
    • Hemorrhagic
    An ischemic stroke (the more common form) is caused by a sudden decrease in blood flow to a region of the brain, which may be due to:
    • A clot that forms in another part of the body (eg, heart or neck) breaking off and blocking flow in a blood vessel supplying the brain (embolus)
    • A clot that forms in an artery that supplies blood to the brain (thrombus)
    • A tear in a blood vessel supplying a part of the brain (arterial dissection)
    A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a burst blood vessel that results in bleeding in the brain.

    Risk Factors

    Examples of risk factors you can control or treat include:
    • Medicines (eg, long-term use of birth control pills )
    • Lifestyle factors
      • Smoking
      • Physical inactivity
      • Diet high in sodium and processed foods
    Risk factors that you cannot control include:
    • History of stroke , heart attack , or other type of cardiovascular disease
    • History of transient ischemic attack (TIA)—With a TIA, stroke symptoms often resolve within minutes (and always within 24 hours). They may signal a very high risk of having a stroke in the future.
    • Age: 60 or older
    • Family members who have had a stroke
    • Gender: males
    • Race: Black, Asian, Hispanic
    • Blood disorder that increases clotting
    • Heart valve disease (eg, mitral stenosis )


    The symptoms of a brainstem stroke can be severe and may include:
    • Problems with vital functions (eg, breathing)
    • Difficulty with chewing, swallowing, and speaking
    • Weakness or paralysis in the arms, legs, and/or face
    • Problems with sensation
    • Hearing loss
    • Vision problems
    • Vertigo (feeling of spinning or whirling when you are not moving)
    • “Locked-in syndrome” (only the eyes are able to move)
    • Coma
    If you or someone you are with has stroke symptoms, get emergency medical care right away.


    Since this is an emergency, the doctor will make a diagnosis as quickly as possible. Tests may include:


    Immediate treatment is needed to potentially:
    • Dissolve a clot causing an ischemic stroke to allow blood flow to the brain
    • Stop the bleeding during a hemorrhagic stroke
    The doctor and nurses will take steps to stabilize the functions of the heart and lungs. A tube may be placed into the windpipe to provide oxygen.


    For an ischemic stroke, medicines may be given to:
    • Dissolve clots and prevent new ones from forming
    • Thin blood
    • Control blood pressure
    • Treat an irregular heart rate
    • Treat high cholesterol
    For a hemorrhagic stroke, the doctor may give medicines to:
    • Work against any blood-thinning drugs you may regularly take
    • Reduce how your brain reacts to bleeding
    • Control blood pressure


    These procedures may be done to treat an ischemic stroke:
    • Embolectomy—a catheter is used to remove the clot or deliver clot-dissolving drugs
    • Carotid angioplasty and stenting —carotid artery is widened and a mesh tube is placed to keep it open
    For a hemorrhagic stroke, a clip or tiny coil may be placed on the aneurysm to stop it from bleeding.
    Once your condition is stabilized, a feeding tube may be placed to deliver nutrients.


    Brainstem strokes can lead to serious deficits. Therapy programs focus on regaining as much ability as possible:
    • Physical therapy—to work on improving movement
    • Occupational therapy—to assist in everyday tasks and self-care
    • Speech therapy—to improve swallowing and speech challenges
    • Psychological therapy—to provide support in adjusting to life after the stroke


    To help reduce your chance of having a stroke, take the following steps:
    • Exercise regularly .
    • Eat a healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
    • Maintain a healthy weight.
    • Drink alcohol only in moderation (1-2 drinks per day).
    • If you smoke, quit .
    • If you have a chronic condition, like high blood pressure or diabetes, get proper treatment.
    • If recommended by your doctor, take a low-dose aspirin every day.
    • If you are at risk for having a stroke, talk to your doctor about statin medicines.


    American Heart Association http://www.americanheart.org/

    National Stroke Association http://www.stroke.org/


    Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada http://www.heartandstroke.com/

    Stroke SurvivorsAssociation of Ottawa http://www.strokesurvivors.ca/


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    Am I at risk for a stroke? National Stroke Association website. Available at: http://www.stroke.org/site/PageServer?pagename=risk . Accessed April 15, 2011.

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    Brainstem stroke. Ohio State University website. Available at: http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patiented/materials/pdfdocs/dis-cond/stroke/brainstem-stroke.pdf . Accessed April 22, 2011.

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    Effects of stroke. Ohio State University Medical Center website. Available at: http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare%5Fservices/stroke/effects/Pages/index.aspx . Accessed April 15, 2011.

    Effects of stroke. Rush University Medical Center website. Available at: http://www.rush.edu/rumc/page-1098987413801.html . Accessed April 15, 2011.

    Mena F, Fruns M, Contreras A, Soto F, Mena I. Acute brainstem infarct: multidisciplinary management. Alasbimn Journal website. Available at: http://www.alasbimnjournal.cl/revistas/5/mena5.htm . Published October 1999. Accessed April 22, 2011.

    Prevention of stroke: recommendations. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/ . Updated April 7, 2011. Accessed April 15, 2011.

    Stroke (acute management): treatment overview. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/ . Updated April 11, 2011. Accessed April 15, 2011.

    Stroke: causes. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stroke/DS00150/DSECTION=causes . Updated July 1, 2010. Accessed April 15, 2011.

    Stroke: frequently asked questions. Women’s Health.gov website. Available at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/faq/stroke.cfm . Updated January 28, 2009. Accessed April 22, 2011.

    Stroke: treatments and drugs. Mayo Clinic website. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stroke/DS00150/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs . Accessed July 1, 2010. Accessed April 15, 2011.

    Tests for the emergent evaluation of the patient with acute ischemic stroke. Internet Stroke Center website. Available at: http://www.strokecenter.org/education/ais%5Fevaluation/tests.htm . Accessed April 22, 2011.

    Wood D. Stroke. EBSCO Health Library website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/healthLibrary/ . Updated March 28, 2011. Accessed April 15, 2011.

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