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Stroke diagnosis

Strokes are usually diagnosed by studying images of the brain (brain imaging) and carrying out physical tests.

Your doctor may check for the causes of your stroke by taking blood tests to determine your cholesterol and blood sugar levels, checking your pulse for an irregular heartbeat and taking a blood pressure measurement.

Even if the physical symptoms of a stroke are obvious, brain imaging should also be carried out to determine:

Different treatment is required for each type of stroke, so a rapid diagnosis will make treatment more straightforward.

CT and MRI scans

Two common methods used for brain imaging are a computer tomography (CT) scan and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

A CT scan is like an X-ray but uses multiple images to build up a more detailed, three-dimensional (3D) picture of your brain. An MRI scan uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce a detailed picture of the inside of your body.

The type of scan you may have in hospital depends on your symptoms. If it is suspected you had a major stroke, a CT scan is sufficient to identify whether the stroke is due to bleeding or clotting. It's quicker than an MRI scan and improves the chances of rapidly delivering treatments such as blood thinning drugs (thrombolysis) that might be used in appropriate cases but which are time-limited and require the results of the scan before the treatment can be given safely.

For people with more complex symptoms, where the extent or location of the damage is unknown, and in patients who have recovered from a TIA, an MRI scan is more appropriate. This will provide greater detail of brain tissue, allowing smaller, or more unusually located strokes to be identified.

All patients with suspected stroke should receive a brain scan within 24 hours. Some patients should be scanned within the hour, especially those who:

  • might benefit from clot-busting drugs (thrombolysis) such as alteplase or early anticoagulant treatment
  • are already on anticoagulant treatments
  • have a lower level of consciousness.

After the injection of a dye into an arm vein, both CT and MRI can be used to take pictures of the blood vessels in the brain, as well as the blood vessels in the neck that take blood to the brain from the heart. This is known as 'CT' or 'MR angiography' and is often done immediately after taking pictures of the brain itself.

Sources: NHS Choices, UK (Stroke - Diagnosis)

Not sure what to do next?

If you are still concerned about your 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).



Last reviewed: July 2015

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