An Overview of Embolic Stroke

Medically Reviewed By Heidi Moawad, M.D.

An embolic stroke occurs when a blood clot forms outside the brain and travels to the brain. When the clot reaches the brain, it can reduce or stop blood flow to a section of the brain. As blood flow to the brain is disrupted, symptoms like walking difficulties, speech issues, and numbness in the face or extremities may occur. An embolic stroke is a medical emergency, so if you or someone nearby experiences these symptoms, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.

This article provides an overview of embolic stroke, including what causes it, what symptoms can occur, and how doctors treat it.

What are the causes and risk factors for an embolic stroke?

An adult male holding his hand to his face as if feeling unwell
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Embolic strokes are caused by blood clots that form in the body, break off, and travel toward the brain where they lodge in an artery. A blood clot that forms in one part of the body and travels to another is called an “embolus.”

An embolic stroke is a type of ischemic stroke — “ischemia” means blood flow is reduced or blocked in a section of the body. When a clot associated with an embolic stroke reaches the brain, it deprives the brain of oxygen-rich blood, disrupting the brain’s function and potentially causing brain tissues to die.

Blood clots associated with embolic strokes can come from the carotid arteries in the neck or the chambers of the heart. Factors that may raise your risk Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of having an embolic stroke include:

Learn more about the types of stroke.

What are the symptoms of an embolic stroke?

The symptoms of an embolic stroke appear suddenly Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source and can be similar to other types of stroke:

The Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source has outlined the FAST test to check for signs of stroke:

  • F for face: One side of the face may sag when smiling.
  • A for arms: One arm may droop or drift downward when raising both arms.
  • S for speech: Speech may be slurred or hard to understand.
  • T for time: If any of the above symptoms are present, call 911.

If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or anyone around you, it is a medical emergency. Call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.

Learn more about stroke symptoms and first aid.

How do doctors diagnose an embolic stroke?

To diagnose an embolic stroke, doctors may assess your symptoms and perform a physical. They can use imaging tests to identify evidence of the stroke in the brain and look for a potential source.

These tests may include Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

  • CT scans
  • MRI scans
  • PET scans
  • ultrasounds
  • angiograms, which allow doctors to evaluate blood flow through the blood vessels

What are the treatments for an embolic stroke?

Rapid treatment is essential to managing embolic stroke and preventing long-term damage. In the hospital, doctors may use medications or surgery to break up or remove the clot and manage your symptoms.

Medications

Doctors can use thrombolytic medications to break up or dissolve blood clots and restore blood flow to the brain. A standard first-line treatment is tissue plasminogen activator (tPA), which is administered through a vein and should be administered within 4.5 hours Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source of the appearance of stroke symptoms.

Learn more about tPA for stroke.

If a person is at high risk for another stroke, doctors may prescribe Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source an anticoagulant like warfarin (Coumadin) or dabigatran (Pradaxa) to prevent additional blood clots from forming.

Surgery

Severe strokes or strokes that affect larger blood vessels may require Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source surgery to remove the blood clot.

Doctors may perform a mechanical thrombectomy, which involves making a small incision and threading a thin tube called a catheter to the site of the blood clot. Once there, the surgeon can use a small device at the tip of the catheter to capture the blood clot and pull it out.

Rehabilitation

People who have experienced a stroke may need rehabilitation to help them recover. Depending on how the stroke has affected you, you may participate in speech, physical, or occupational therapy.

Doctors will also recommend treatment for any underlying conditions or adjustments to your lifestyle that can reduce your risk of another stroke.

What is the outlook for someone who has experienced an embolic stroke?

A person’s outlook after experiencing an embolic stroke may vary depending on a few factors, including their age and overall health. However, prompt treatment is critical Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source in improving outcomes.

Learn more about stroke outlook and life expectancy.

Strokes can cause permanent damage or can even be fatal, but improvements in treatment Trusted Source AHA/ASA Journals Peer reviewed journal Go to source have improved outcomes and helped people regain their independence after a stroke.

Learn more about complications to watch for after a stroke.

Can you prevent an embolic stroke?

Embolic strokes may not always be preventable, but some lifestyle practices may reduce your risk. Your doctor may recommend Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source :

  • avoiding smoking
  • limiting how much alcohol you consumer
  • maintaining a moderate weight
  • getting regular physical activity
  • eating a balanced diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables and low in salt and saturated fats

It’s also essential to manage any underlying conditions that may raise your risk of another stroke, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. If you have a health condition that increases your stroke risk, talk with your doctor about ways to manage it.

Learn more about stroke prevention.

Summary

Embolic strokes are medical emergencies that require prompt treatment. If you or someone nearby is experiencing symptoms consistent with a stroke, call 911 or seek immediate medical attention.

If you believe you may be at risk for stroke, talk with a doctor about ways to reduce your risk.

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Medical Reviewer: Heidi Moawad, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2024 Jan 24
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