Stroke Treatment Today

  • Published23 Mar 2011
  • Reviewed23 Mar 2011
  • Author Aalok Mehta
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

In stroke, a blocked or burst blood vessel disrupts the brain’s supply of nutrients and oxygen, damaging or destroying brain cells. The results can be highly variable — from near-instantaneous death to full recovery.

A stroke occurs when a blockage bursts or clogs a blood vessel bringing oxygen to the brain. Those who escape death can suffer from brain damage and impairments in function. Problems in movement, speech, or cognition are common. Continued research, however, will better help prevent and treat these debilitating attacks.

  • Stroke is common, affecting 795,000 people in the United States each year. Of these, about 137,000 die, making stroke the country’s third-leading cause of death. It also is the leading cause of long-term United States disability.
  • Worldwide, stroke is the second-leading cause of death and disability after heart disease.
  • Stroke can strike at any age, but the risk of stroke increases greatly as people age.
  • In 2009, stroke cost the United States $68.9 billion through health care services, medications, and missed days of work.

Fortunately, with support from the National Institutes of Health and other organizations, neuroscientists are developing more potent methods for diagnosing, treating, and preventing not only strokes but also the long-term brain damage they can cause.

Much like heart disease, a key method for fighting stroke is preventing it entirely. Brain scientists have identified and developed methods to control numerous risk factors for stroke, most importantly high blood pressure, but also high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, excess alcohol intake, and illicit drug use.

Once someone has had a stroke, they are much more likely to suffer another one; each year, 185,000 of total strokes in the United States are repeat occurrences. Scientists have found that prescribing aspirin and other drugs can reduce the likelihood of brain and other blockages in at-risk people.

Research Equals New Treatments

Stroke comes in several varieties. But in all cases, time is of the essence; the sooner doctors can restore normal blood flow, the greater the odds of recovery.

Based on basic science findings, neuroscientists have developed several options for treatment. For instance, tissue plasminogen activator, a “clot buster” drug, can dissolve blockages, reducing the risk of disability and shortening hospital stays, when used within four to five hours of a stroke.

Minimally invasive surgical techniques may extend this brief window of treatment. These procedures involve threading a tube through the blood vessels to the site of a blockage, and then either grabbing the clot with a corkscrew-like device or suctioning it up.

Many stroke victims do not receive immediate treatment, because they do not recognize their symptoms in time or have access to stroke specialists. In these cases, rehabilitation can reduce disability. Physicians hope to use the brain’s inherent flexibility to “rewire” brain circuits around stroke damage.

One newly developed technique results in mobility improvements in people who lose movement on one side of their body. Known as constraint-induced movement therapy, it involves immobilizing the unaffected side of the body and intense exercise of the other.