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Stroke diagnosis

3-minute read

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.

Physical examination

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
  • your lungs, for any abnormalities

Blood tests

Your doctor may investigate the causes of your stroke by taking blood tests to determine your cholesterol and blood sugar levels, whether you have anaemia (low haemoglobin in the blood), inflammation, or high levels of chemicals such as potassium.

CT and MRI scans

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.

Tests that are commonly used include a computer tomography (CT) scan, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and an angiogram.

A CT scan is like an x-ray but uses multiple images to build up a more detailed, three-dimensional 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.

An angiogram involves injecting dye into your blood vessels through a thin tube, usually in your groin, which makes them visible using an x-ray.

All patients with suspected stroke should receive an urgent brain scan within 24 hours.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

An electrocardiogram (ECG), a type of heart test, is recommended for all stroke patients.

Echocardiogram

An echocardiogram (an ultrasound of the heart) checks for a blood clot or enlargement of one of the chambers of the heart. This may pinpoint the cause of a stroke.

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).

Last reviewed: July 2017

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