The brainstem is located directly above the spinal cord. It helps controls involuntary functions like heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure. Normal brainstem function is vital to survival. Nerves that are used for eye movement, hearing, talking, chewing, swallowing, and muscle movement are also controlled by the brainstem.
A brainstem stroke happens when the blood supply to the brainstem is interrupted. This type of stroke can result in death, since the damaged brainstem can no longer control the body’s vital functions.
There are two main types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke is the most common type of stroke.
An ischemic stroke is caused by a blockage of the blood flow, which may be due to:
A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a burst blood vessel. Blood spills out of the broken blood vessel and pools in the brain. This interrupts the flow of blood and causes a build up of pressure on the brain.
Men and people of African American, Hispanic, or Asian/Pacific Islander descent are more likely to have strokes. Women are more likely to die from strokes than men.
Factors that may increase your risk of stroke include:
Medical conditions that can increase your risk of stroke include:
Lifestyle factors that can increase your risk of stroke include:
The symptoms of a brainstem stroke can be severe and may include:
If you or someone you know has any of these symptoms, call for emergency medical services right away. Brain tissue without blood flow dies quickly. Early care can decrease damage.
Since this is an emergency, the doctor will make a diagnosis as quickly as possible. An exam of your nervous system will be done.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
Your kidney and liver function will also be tested.
Immediate treatment is needed to:
If needed, steps may be taken to help support your heart and lungs. A tube may be placed into the windpipe to provide oxygen.
For an ischemic stroke, medication may be given to:
For a hemorrhagic stroke, the doctor may give medication to:
These procedures may be done to treat an ischemic stroke:
For a hemorrhagic stroke, a clip or tiny coil may be placed on the aneurysm to stop it from bleeding.
When 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:
Many of the risk factors for stroke can be changed. Lifestyle changes that can help reduce your chance of getting a stroke include:
American Heart Association
National Stroke Association
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
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Last reviewed November 2013 by Rimas Lukas, MD