Let's Talk About Complications After Stroke

Updated:Dec 14,2015

The treating doctor’s highest priorities are to prevent complications that can occur as a result from the stroke and to prevent another stroke. Your doctor must determine that you are medically stable and able to resume some self-care activities. This means that all complications must be treated and under control.

Some things happen as a direct result of injury to the brain due to stroke. Others are because of a change in your abilities. For example, being unable to move freely can result in bedsores. Clinical depression can also occur with a stroke.

What are common complications of stroke?
The most common complications of stroke are:

  • Brain edema — swelling of the brain after a stroke.
  • Pneumonia — causes breathing problems, a complication of many major illnesses. Pneumonia occurs as a result of not being able to move as a result of the stroke. Swallowing problems after stroke can sometimes result in things ‘going down the wrong pipe’, leading to aspiration pneumonia.
  • Urinary tract infection (UTI) and/or bladder control.  UTI can occur as a result of having a foley catheter placed to collect urine when the stroke survivor cannot control bladder function.
  • Seizures — abnormal electrical activity in the brain causing convulsions.  These are common in larger strokes.
  • Clinical depression — a treatable illness that often occurs with stroke and causes unwanted emotional and physical reactions to changes and losses.  This is very common after stroke or may be worsened in someone who had depression before the stroke.
  • Bedsores — pressure ulcers that result from decreased ability to move and pressure on areas of the body because of immobility.
  • Limb contractures — shortened muscles in an arm or leg from reduced ability to move the affected limb  or lack of exercise.
  • Shoulder pain — stems from lack of support of an arm due to weakness or paralysis. This usually is caused when the affected arm hangs resulting in pulling of the arm on the shoulder.
  • Deep venous thrombosis (DVT) — blood clots form in veins of the legs because of immobility from stroke. 

What can be done?
If you need medical treatment, your doctor will prescribe it.

  • Medical treatment often involves medical supervision, monitoring and drug therapies.
  • Physical treatment usually involves some type of activity that may be done by you, a healthcare provider or by both of you working together. Types of treatment may include:
    • Range-of-motion exercises and physical therapy to avoid limb contracture, shoulder pain and blood vessel problems.
    • Frequent turning while in bed to prevent pressure sores and good nutrition.
    • Bladder training programs for incontinence.
  • Swallowing and respiratory therapy, and deep-breathing exercises. These all help to decrease the risk of pneumonia.
  • Psychological treatment can include counseling or therapy for feelings that result from clinical depression. Types of treatment may include antidepressant medication, psychotherapy or both. You may also be referred to a local stroke support group.

How can I learn more?

  1. Call 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653) to learn more about stroke or find local support groups, or visit StrokeAssociation.org.
  2. Sign up to get Stroke Connection magazine, a free magazine for stroke survivors and caregivers at strokeconnection.org.
  3. Connect with others sharing similar journeys with stroke by joining our Support Network at strokeassociation.org/supportnetwork.

We have many other fact sheets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit strokeassociation.org/letstalkaboutstroke to learn more. 

Do you have questions for your doctor or nurse?

Take a few minutes to write your own questions for the next time you see your healthcare provider:

What complications am I most at risk for?      
What can I do to prevent complications? 

©2015, American Heart Association

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