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by EBSCO Medical Review Board

Brainstem Stroke

(Stroke, Brainstem)


A brainstem stroke happens when blood supply to the base of the brain is stopped. This can affect many functions in the body, such as heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure.
There are two main types: ischemic and hemorrhagic . An ischemic stroke is the most common type.
Medical care is needed right away. Cells in the brain die if they are without oxygen for more than a few minutes. This can be deadly.
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An ischemic stroke happens when blood flow is blocked. This may be caused by:
  • A clot from another part of the body that breaks off and becomes trapped in a blood vessel supplying the brain
  • A clot that forms in an artery that supplies blood to the brain
  • A tear in an artery supplying blood to the brain
A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a burst blood vessel. Blood pools in the brain. This slows or stops the flow of blood and causes a buildup of pressure on the brain.

Risk Factors

This problem is more common in older adults and people with a family history of stroke.
Problems that affect blood vessel health and blood flow can raise the risk of stroke. Some examples are:
Daily habits can also play a role. Some examples are:
  • Smoking
  • A diet that is high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, and sodium
  • Physical inactivity
  • Drug abuse from cocaine , amphetamines, or heroin use


Some symptoms may be:
  • Muscle weakness
  • Hearing and vision problems
  • Sensory changes
  • Problems with balance
  • A feeling of spinning when a person is still
  • Problems breathing
  • Problems chewing, swallowing, and speaking


A stroke needs to be diagnosed quickly. The doctor will ask you or a family member about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will look for signs of nerve or brain problems.
Blood tests may be done to look for clotting problems.
Images may be taken of the brain. This can be done with:
Heart function will be checked. This can be done with:


Emergency care will be needed. The heart and lungs may need support. A tube may also be placed to help with breathing. Other options are:


For an ischemic stroke, medicine may be given to:
  • Dissolve clots and prevent new ones from forming
  • Thin blood
For a hemorrhagic stroke, medicine may be given to:
  • Work against any blood-thinning drugs a person has been taking
  • Reduce how the brain reacts to bleeding


Options to treat an ischemic stroke are:
  • Embolectomy—a tube is passed through blood to remove a clot or deliver medicine to break it up
  • Vertebrobasilar angioplasty and stenting —a major artery to the brain is widened and a mesh tube is left in place to help keep it open


Therapy may be needed to regain lost skills. Options are:
  • Physical therapy—to improve movement
  • Occupational therapy—to help with daily tasks and self care
  • Speech therapy—to improve swallowing and speech
  • Psychological therapy—to provide support after the stroke


The risk of stroke can be lowered by:
  • Managing chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure and diabetes
  • Maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise
  • Eating a diet that is low in fat and cholesterol and rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
  • Not smoking
  • Limiting alcohol


American Heart Association
National Stroke Association


Health Canada
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada


Hemorrhagic strokes (bleeds). American Stroke Association website. Available at: https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/types-of-stroke/hemorrhagic-strokes-bleeds. Accessed January 12, 2021.
Intracerebral hemorrhage. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/intracerebral-hemorrhage. Accessed January 12, 2021.
Ischemic strokes (clots). American Stroke Association website. Available at: American Stroke Association website. Available at: https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/types-of-stroke/ischemic-stroke-clots#.Vk3ipE2FPIU. Accessed January 12, 2021.
Long-term management of stroke. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/long-term-management-of-stroke. Accessed January 12, 2021.
Medelson SA, Prabhakaran S. Pace of progress in stroke thrombolysis: are hospitals running to stand still? Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2017;10(1):e003438.
Neuroimaging for acute stroke. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/evaluation/neuroimaging-for-acute-stroke. Accessed January 12, 2021.
Stroke (acute management). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/management/stroke-acute-management-1. Accessed January 12, 2021.
Subarachnoid hemorrhage. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/subarachnoid-hemorrhage. Accessed January 12, 2021.
1/18/2017 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance https://www.dynamed.com/prevention/cardiovascular-disease-possible-risk-factors: Emdin CA, Odutayo A, Wet al. Meta-analysis of anxiety as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Am J Cardiol. 2016;118(4):511-519.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
  • Review Date: 12/2020
  • Update Date: 01/12/2021