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Stroke is a cardiovascular disease. It affects the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. When blood flow to the brain is impaired, oxygen and important nutrients cannot be delivered. The result is abnormal brain function. Blood flow to the brain can be disrupted by either a blockage or rupture of an artery to the brain. There are many causes for a stroke. This is a medical emergency. Prompt treatment could mean the difference between life and death. Early treatment can also minimize damage to your brain and potential disability.

Screening and diagnosis

If you've had a previous stroke or TIA or think you're at risk of stroke, talk with your doctor about screening and diagnostic tests.

Before treating a stroke, your doctor must diagnose the type of stroke and its location. Other possible causes of your symptoms, such as a tumor, also need to be excluded.

The following are most often used as screening tools to determine your risk, but they may also be used as diagnostic tools if you're having a stroke:

  • Physical examination and tests. Your doctor may check for risk factors of stroke, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes and elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine. Your doctor may also use a stethoscope to listen for a whooshing sound (bruit) over your arteries that may indicate atherosclerosis.

  • Carotid ultrasonography. In this procedure, a wand-like device (transducer) sends high-frequency sound waves into your neck. The sound waves pass through tissue and then return, creating on-screen images that delineate any narrowing or clotting in your carotid arteries.

  • Arteriography. This procedure gives a view of arteries in your brain not normally seen in X-rays. Your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube (catheter) through a small incision, usually in your groin. The catheter is manipulated through your major arteries and into your carotid or vertebral artery. Then your doctor injects a dye through the catheter to provide X-ray images of your arteries.

  • Computerized tomography (CT). In computerized tomographic angiography (CTA), a dye is injected into your vein and X-ray beams create a three-dimensional image of the blood vessels in your neck and brain. CTA is used to look for aneurysms or arteriovenous malformations and to evaluate for artery narrowing. CT scanning, which is done without dye, can provide images of your brain, but without as much detailed information about the blood vessels.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using a strong magnetic field, an MRI can generate a three-dimensional view of your brain. This test is sensitive for detecting an area of brain tissue damaged by an ischemic stroke. Magnetic resonance angiography (MRA) uses this magnetic field and a dye injected into your veins to evaluate arteries in your neck and brain.

  • Echocardiography. Your doctor can use this ultrasound technology to compose images of your heart. He or she may also use transesophageal echocardiography (TEE) to create clear and detailed ultrasound images with a better view of some things, such as blood clots, that might not be clearly visible on a traditional echocardiogram.


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This information is provided for general medical education purposes only and is not meant to substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician relative to diagnostic and treatment options of a specific patient's medical condition.
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