Anyone who has symptoms of a stroke needs immediate medical attention, preferably in an emergency department or hospital with the specialised equipment required to diagnose and treat stroke.
Strokes are usually diagnosed by studying images of the brain (brain imaging) and carrying out a physical examination. If you need to see a doctor in connection with a stroke - or your risk of having a stroke — they may also check your blood pressure and your heart for any underlying problems.
Your doctor may start by asking questions to check you are alert and that your speech is coherent. You can also expect to be asked questions about your lifestyle and medical history to identify any risk factors for stroke.
The doctor will examine you to see if your body shows signs of a stroke. This will involve checking:
- your airway and breathing
- your reflexes, muscle strength, senses, and coordination
- your neck, to listen for sounds from any blockages of the arteries
- your blood pressure
- your heart, for abnormal rhythm or heart disease
Even if the physical symptoms of a stroke are obvious, brain imaging should be carried out within the first 24 hours to determine:
- whether the stroke has been caused by a blocked artery or burst blood vessel
- which part of the brain has been affected
- how severe the stroke is
- the risk of a transient ischaemic attack (TIA)
Different treatment is required for each type of stroke, so a rapid diagnosis will make treatment more straightforward.
Tests that are commonly used include:
- a computer tomography (CT) scan, which is like an x-ray but uses multiple images to build up a more detailed, three-dimensional picture of your brain
- an a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)scan, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce a detailed picture of the inside of your body
After you have a stroke, you will have a range of other tests.
- Heart tests: You may have an angiogram, which involves injecting dye into your blood vessels through a thin tube, usually in your groin, which makes them visible using an x-ray; an electrocardiogram (ECG); or an echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) that checks for a blood clot or enlargement of one of the chambers of the heart. This may pinpoint the cause of a stroke.
- Blood tests: Your doctor may take blood tests to look for other medical conditions that may have caused the stroke. They may test for your cholesteroland blood sugar levels, whether you have anaemia (low haemoglobin in the blood), inflammation, or high levels of chemicals such as potassium.
- Other tests: You may have a type of ultrasound to measure the speed of the blood flow in the brain arteries; a cerebral angiogram to look for any blockages in blood flow in the brain; or an ultrasound to see if the arteries in the neck are narrow or blocked.
Not sure what to do next?
If you are still concerned about a stroke diagnosis, why not use healthdirect's online Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
The Symptom Checker guides you to the next appropriate healthcare steps, whether it’s self-care, talking to a health professional, going to a hospital or calling triple zero (000).
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Last reviewed: July 2019