Diagnosing Stroke


When someone has shown symptoms of a stroke or a TIA (transient ischemic attack), a doctor will gather information and make a diagnosis. He or she will review the events that have occurred and will:

  • get a medical history
  • do a physical and neurological examination
  • have certain laboratory (blood) tests done
  • get a CT scan of the patient
  • study the results of other diagnostic tests that might be needed

What are the types of diagnostic tests?
What are some common imaging tests?
What is an electrical activity test?
What is a blood flow test?
How can I learn more?

What are the types of diagnostic tests?
Diagnostic tests examine how the brain looks, works and gets its blood supply. They can outline the injured brain area. Most of them are safe and painless.

Diagnostic tests fall into three categories.

  • Imaging tests give a picture of the brain similar to X-rays.
  • Electrical tests record the electrical impulses of the brain.
  • Blood flow tests show any problem that may cause changes in blood flow to the brain.
What are some common imaging tests?
  • CT scan (Computed Tomography) or CAT scan is a key imaging test. It uses radiation to create a picture of the brain. It's usually one of the first tests given to patients suspected of stroke. CT test results give valuable information about the cause of stroke and the location and extent of brain injury.
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) uses a large magnetic field to produce an image of the brain. Like the CT scan, it shows the location and extent of brain injury. The image produced by MRI is sharper and more detailed than a CT scan so it's often used to diagnose small, deep injuries.
What is an electrical activity test?
Two basic tests, EEG and Evoked Response, show the brain's electrical activity.
  • In an EEG (electroencephalogram), small metal discs (electrodes) are placed on a person's scalp to pick up electrical impulses. These electrical signals are printed out as brain waves.
  • An Evoked Response test measures how the brain handles different sensory information. Electrodes record electrical impulses related to hearing, body sensation or vision.
What is a blood flow test?
Several blood flow tests exist; most use ultrasound technology. A probe is placed over the suspect artery -- especially arteries in the neck or at the base of the skull -- and the amount of blood flow is determined.

Examples of blood flow tests are: B-mode imaging, Doppler testing and duplex scanning. These tests give detailed information about the condition of arteries.

Another blood flow test is a medical procedure called angiography (arteriography or arteriogram). In this, special dyes are injected into the blood vessels and an X-ray is taken.

Angiography gives a picture of the blood flow through the vessels. This allows the size and location of blockages to be evaluated. This test can be especially valuable in diagnosing aneurysms and malformed blood vessels and providing information before surgery.

How can I learn more?

  • Talk to your doctor, nurse or healthcare professional or call the American Stroke Association.
    Just dial 1-888-4-STROKE (478-7653).
  • If you've had a stroke or have heart disease, members of your family also may be at higher risk. It's very important for them to make changes now to lower their risk.