When you think you might have had a stroke, you and your loved ones may feel overwhelmed, or even a little scared. We understand that.
After a possible stroke, it’s important for your healthcare provider to collect all the information they’ll need to give you the best possible care.
If you’ve experienced the symptoms of a stroke, like numbness on one side of your face, your provider will order a series of tests to find the source of the problem.
To diagnose a stroke, your provider will probably recommend that you get a CT scan (or or Computed Tomography scan) soon after your symptoms show up.
Let’s take a closer look at how healthcare providers use CT scans to diagnose a stroke, at what you can expect from a CT scan for stroke, and at how to understand your CT results.
What is a stroke, and why is it a medical emergency?
A stroke, simply put, is a sudden interruption in the blood supply to the brain. A stroke happens when a blood vessel in someone’s brain is either blocked or has burst.
Strokes are a medical emergency because our brains depend on a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients that are delivered through a person’s bloodstream.
If the flow of blood is interrupted even for a brief period, brain cells can begin to die, potentially leading to significant impairments or even life-threatening situations.
What are the different types of stroke?
Strokes can broadly be divided into three types
- Ischemic strokes are the most common type, and occur when blood clots or other particles block the blood vessels to the brain
- Hemorrhagic strokes are less common, are often more severe, and occur when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures or bleeds
- Transient ischemic attacks (or TIAs), often referred to as mini-strokes, are temporary blockages of blood flow that often serve as warning signs for future strokes
What are the common symptoms of stroke?
Stroke symptoms typically occur suddenly and can vary greatly depending on which part of the brain is affected.
However, some of the most common symptoms can include:
- sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg (particularly on one side of the body)
- sudden confusion
- difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- sudden difficulty walking or loss of balance
- a sudden severe headache with no known cause
Seek medical help immediately (call 9-1-1) if you or someone else might be experiencing these symptoms.
How can a stroke affect your body and overall health?
The potential effects of a stroke on a person’s body and health can be significant.
A stroke’s impact depends on how much of the brain is affected, and how quickly a person gets medical attention, following a stroke.
After a stroke, some individuals may experience temporary or permanent disabilities, ranging from slight speech impairments to more profound physical and cognitive challenges.
It’s also important to note that having a stroke puts a person at higher risk for subsequent strokes.
However, with prompt medical attention, ongoing care, and rehabilitation, many stroke survivors can regain their independence and enjoy meaningful, satisfying lives.
Why you need a CT scan after a suspected stroke
Stroke is a condition where every minute counts, and the sooner a healthcare provider can diagnose and treat it, the better the potential outcome for the patient.
Early diagnosis is vital, as it allows for prompt intervention, which can help limit the damage to the brain and increase the chances of recovery.
Depending on the type of stroke, certain medications and treatments can be administered to restore blood flow to the brain and minimize the effects, but these must be given within a specific window of time from the onset of symptoms.
Why do healthcare providers order a CT scan right after a possible stroke?
If your provider thinks you had a stroke, a CT scan is often the first-line diagnostic test they recommend.
A CT scan is quick, widely available, and can provide a clear and detailed image of the brain in mere minutes.
Also, CT scans are great at distinguishing between the different types of stroke.
By providing a clear image of the brain, a CT scan can quickly show whether a stroke was caused by a clot or by bleeding in the brain, which is crucial for deciding the next steps in treatment.
Why did my doctor order a CT scan instead of another scan?
While there are several imaging technologies available for diagnosing strokes, CT scans often take precedence for a few reasons.
Apart from their speed and accessibility, CT scans are non-invasive and relatively comfortable for the patient.
They also offer an excellent level of detail, enabling healthcare providers to make a prompt diagnosis.
Also, CT scans can not only identify whether a stroke has occurred, but they can also help determine the extent and location of the damage, which is crucial to creating a tailored treatment plan.
How does the timing of the CT scan affect the diagnosis?
The timing of the CT scan can significantly influence the diagnosis and subsequent treatment plan in stroke cases.
A CT scan taken immediately after the onset of stroke symptoms might not yet show any changes.
However, within a few hours or less, the scan can reveal areas of the brain that have been affected by the stroke, providing vital clues about the stroke’s type, location, and severity.
So the sooner the scan happens, the sooner a healthcare provider can put a treatment plan in place.
How a CT scan diagnoses a possible stroke
A CT scan is a sophisticated imaging tool that works by taking multiple images of your brain from various angles.
These images are then processed by a computer to produce detailed cross-sectional views of the brain, which look like thin slices.
These images allow healthcare providers to see the brain in high detail, which is crucial when it comes to diagnosing a stroke.
How does a CT scan identify areas of the brain affected by stroke?
One of the remarkable aspects of a CT scan is its ability to distinguish between different types of tissues in the brain, including brain cells and other structures.
CT images enable healthcare providers to identify precisely where the stroke occurred and the extent of the damage.
A CT scan can reveal areas of the brain that have been deprived of blood flow, showing that a person has had a stroke.
How does a CT scan tell what kind of stroke a person had?
Fortunately, a CT scan can help distinguish between the two.
In an ischemic stroke, the CT scan might show a region of the brain that’s darker, indicating an area where blood flow has been blocked and brain tissue may be dying.
A hemorrhagic stroke, which involves bleeding into the brain, often shows up as a brighter or whiter area on the CT scan.
Telling the difference between the two is critical for providing an effective treatment plan.
What to expect during your CT scan for stroke
If you’re being evaluated for a possible stroke, time is of the essence, so there’s generally no special preparation needed.
Your healthcare provider may ask you about any existing health conditions or allergies, especially to contrast material, which are sometimes used to enhance the visibility of certain areas in the scan.
Remember to wear comfortable clothing and you may be asked to remove any metal objects such as jewelry, glasses, or dentures that could interfere with the scan.
What happens during a brain CT scan?
During a CT scan, you’ll lie on a special table that moves into the donut-shaped CT scanner.
The scanner will then rotate around your head, taking multiple images from different angles. The procedure is typically quick, often completed in less than 10 minutes.
While the machine may make some humming or clicking noises, it’s essential to remain as still as possible to ensure the clarity of the images.
If contrast material is used to enhance the images, it will be administered through a vein before the scan begins.
Can a CT scan for stroke diagnosis be painful or uncomfortable?
A CT scan is generally a painless procedure, though some people might feel a bit uncomfortable lying still during the scan.
The table you lie on may feel hard, and the room might be cool, but these minor discomforts are usually manageable and temporary.
If contrast material is used, you may experience a warm sensation or a metallic taste in your mouth, but these sensations are temporary.
Please let your CT technologist know if you’re feeling any pain, or if you’re uncomfortable, and they’ll do everything they can do to accommodate you.
Are there any risks associated with a CT scan for stroke diagnosis?
As with any medical procedure, there are some risks associated with CT scans.
However, the amount of radiation is relatively low and is considered safe for the vast majority of people.
Allergic reactions to contrast material are also infrequent, and usually mild, if they do occur.
If you have any concerns, please don’t hesitate to discuss them with your healthcare provider, or with your CT technologist.
Understanding your CT scan results for stroke diagnosis
A CT scan provides a detailed look at various structures inside your brain. It’s like viewing thin slices of your brain from different angles.
They can see any bleeding, swelling, or abnormalities such as a blood clot or an area with decreased blood flow.
How do healthcare providers interpret CT scans in stroke cases?
Interpreting a CT scan in a stroke case is a task for experienced healthcare providers. They look for areas in the brain that appear different from normal tissue.
In the case of an ischemic stroke, they’re looking for a darker area that signifies lack of blood flow.
For a hemorrhagic stroke, they’re looking for brighter or white areas, which indicate bleeding.
They’ll also take into account the location and size of the abnormality, as this can help predict which functions might be affected and guide treatment decisions.
What does it mean if your CT results confirm you had a stroke?
A confirmed stroke on your CT scan results means there has been a disruption in blood flow to a part of your brain.
The type of stroke will dictate the treatment approach your healthcare provider recommends.
This could range from medications to dissolve a clot, for ischemic stroke, to more intensive measures for a hemorrhagic stroke.
Remember, your healthcare team is there to provide information and to support you, so please be sure to ask any questions that come to mind.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What is a stroke and why is it a medical emergency?
A stroke is a medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to a part of the brain is cut off, leading to potentially severe health implications.
Why is a CT scan often the first diagnostic test performed after a suspected stroke
A CT scan is typically the first test performed as it can quickly detect any bleeding in the brain or areas of damaged brain cells, which can help a patient get care sooner.
What makes CT scans a good choice over other imaging technologies in stroke cases?
Providers choose CT scans because they are fast, accurate, widely available, and can differentiate between the types of stroke, helping providers choose the most appropriate treatment.
How does a CT scan work to diagnose a stroke?
A CT scan uses X-rays to create detailed images of the brain, helping to identify areas affected by a stroke, like blood clots or brain hemorrhages.
What happens during a brain CT scan?
During a brain CT scan, you will lie on a table that slides into a circular machine which takes images of your brain from different angles.
How do healthcare providers interpret CT scans in stroke cases?
Providers interpret CT scans by looking for areas of the brain that show signs of bleeding, blocked blood flow, or damaged brain cells.
What are the possible next steps if your CT scan confirms a stroke?
If your CT scan confirms a stroke, your healthcare provider will likely begin immediate treatment, which could include medications, surgery, and subsequent therapy.