Guide to Brain Stem Stroke

Strokes are an injury to the brain from lack of blood flow. When blood flow is lost, the delicate cells in the brain actually die off and cease function. A brain stem stroke affects the part of the brain that regulates our heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. This type of stroke can also affect our ability to talk, hear, swallow and move our eyes. And there are two different types of strokes that can affect the blood supply to the brain: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Both types cause blockage and can be fatal if left untreated.

What Causes Brain Stem Stroke?

1. Types of Stroke Based on Different Causes

Let’s look at the two types of stroke that can cause a brain stem stroke in more detail. Both can reduce the amount of blood flow to the brain stem and disrupt vital body functions. One causes blockage inside the blood vessel, while the other causes blood loss to vital areas and pressure from the outside of the blood vessels.  

  • Ischemic stroke. This is the type of stroke seen most often and caused by a blood clot cutting off the blood flow. Blood clots can form anywhere and travel to the blood vessels near or in the brain, and most often it could be a blood clot coming from the neck area or even the heart. If a major artery near the brain stem tears, it can also reduce blood flow to the area and cause a stroke. These are more common in the older adult population.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke. If a blood vessel ruptures inside the brain and bleeds, it can cause pressure and cut off blood flow to other parts of the brain. When there is a hemorrhage in one area of the brain, other areas will receive less blood. A hemorrhagic stroke is usually caused by some type of head trauma and can happen to anyone.

2. Risk Factors of Brain Stem Stroke

Age tends to be one of the largest risk factors for strokes. However, there are other risk factors that increase the risk when coupled with the age of a person. Here are some common risk factors:

  • Age. Older adults tend to be more prone to strokes. This includes older adults that suffer from high blood pressure or diabetes, smokers and those who are obese. There have been people under the age of 65 that suffer from strokes, but this is less common.
  • Race and ethnicity. Strokes tend to occur more in African-Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics. The strokes in these populations can be a larger risk for fatalities from a stroke. However, as all the ethnicities age, the gaps tend to close as the risk for Caucasians gets higher when aging.  
  • Family history. If you have a family history of strokes or TIA (transient ischemic attack), you may be at a higher risk for stroke.
  • Heart and vascular disease. Your risk of stroke is increased if you have a personal medical history that includes high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.Autoimmune disorders, cancer and pregnancy can also raise the risk.
  • Gender. Men have a higher risk of having a stroke, but women are at a higher risk of dying of a stroke if they have had one.
  • Lifestyle. Certain lifestyle factors can raise the risk of stroke, even if you have no other factors that raise the risk of stroke. If you have any of the following habits, you may be putting yourself at a higher risk:excessive alcohol use, smoke tobacco, lack of exercise, and/or use street drugs.

How Can I Tell Someone Is Having a Stroke?

1. “F.A.S.T.” Method to Spot a Stroke

The acronym “F.A.S.T.” helps people remember the symptoms to watch for in regards to strokes. If you or someone you know has these symptoms, call 911 immediately:

  • F (Facial Droop) – Half of the face appears to droop or feels numb. Try to smile, if the smile is drooping on one side, this could be a sign of a stroke.
  • A (Arm Weak) – One arm is numb or weak. Try to raise both arms, if one arm comes up higher than the other, a stroke could be responsible.
  • S (Speaking Difficulty) – Slurred speech, trouble speaking or hard to understand. If you can’t say “the sun is shining” or other simple sentences, then stroke is a possibility.
  • T (Time to Call for Help) – Call 911 if any of the above symptoms are present. Even if they come and go, emergency help is still needed.

2. Important Signs and Symptoms to Notice

Below are the important signs and symptoms of a stroke:

  • Headache or loss of hearing
  • Uneven pupils, disordered eye movements, blurry vision, eye pain, seeing double
  • Nausea, vomiting, dizzy, off-balance
  • Extremely drowsy or loss of consciousness
  • Slurring speech, can’t speak, can’t swallow
  • Feeling numb or weak on one side of the body

3. Rare Symptoms and Complications of Brain Stem Stroke

Rarely, a brain stem stroke can cause the following symptoms:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Paralysis “locked-in syndrome”
  • Coma

What Are the Treatment Options for Brain Stem Stroke?

The treatment for brainstem stroke is aimed at working on the root cause of the stroke and relieving any symptoms. Here are some common treatments for stroke:

1. Medication

The medicines you are going to use depend on which type of stroke you had. If you had an ischemic stroke, you are most likely given medications to help either dissolve blood clots or stop any bleeding in the brain. If a hemorrhagic stroke is the stroke you had, blood pressure, seizure and cholesterol medications are used as needed.

2. Rehabilitation

A stroke affects the muscles and you may need physical therapy to help bring back muscle strength. You may even need to learn to do some things again. Occupational therapy can help you do all the daily tasks like dressing, brushing your teeth, or performing work activities. Speech therapists can help you re-learn to speak and swallow.

3. Surgery

The doctor may need to drain fluid from your brain by placing a tube through the skull. This tube can also monitor the pressure in the brain. Another surgical procedure may also need to be done to place a filter in the blocked blood vessel to keep clots from passing through to the brain.

4. Ventilator

If the stroke is causing you to have severe breathing issues, you may need a tube placed through the mouth or nose to deliver extra oxygen to your lungs.

Survival Rate and Prognosis of Brain Stem Stroke

While the statistics show stroke can be the fourth largest cause of death in the U.S., death from strokes is much less now than in the past. With advances in treatments, more than 75% of stroke victims live more than one year after their stroke and 50% live more than five years.

However, stroke survivors can suffer from long-term weakness, painand muscle spasms. There are also complications, like having trouble with walking, getting out of bed or a chair, eating issues, and other normal daily activities. Furthermore, during the first few weeks to months, there is a high chance of having another stroke. Within the first five years, 25% of stroke sufferers often suffer another stroke.