What to Expect After a Stroke: The First Days to Weeks

Quick summary

After a patient moves from the ER to the hospital, doctors will deal with any complications and help prevent future strokes. Here's what to expect during his hospital stay, and how to prepare for his care and recovery after he gets out.


After the ER: a short hospital stay


Once a patient's stroke has been evaluated and his condition has been stabilized, he'll be transferred out of the ER and into a hospital bed. How long he spends in the hospital depends on a number of factors, including the type and severity of his stroke, what medical complications arise, and the extent of his disability. But it's unlikely that he'll be in the hospital for long. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average length of hospitalization for stroke in 2005 was 5.2 days.

What to expect after a stroke


Even though the person you're caring for is out of the ER, serious complications may still arise. An estimated one out of five stroke patients dies during his hospital stay.

The patient's treatment team has two main goals: To prevent another stroke from occurring and to minimize and respond to any complications.

To this end, the person you're caring for will undergo more testing to determine the cause of this stroke. Although the doctors should know what type of stroke he had, they'll still need to pinpoint the exact cause. They may perform one or more of the following tests:

Carotid ultrasound to determine if either carotid artery is narrowed or blocked. This test is noninvasive and painless: A technician applies jelly to the patient's neck, then slides an ultrasound wand over the skin covering his carotid artery.

Transcranial Doppler test for blockages in the large brain arteries. This test is similar to the carotid ultrasound, although the sound waves go through the patient's skull instead of his neck.

Cerebral angiogram to look for atherosclerosis or a brain aneurysm. The patient will be sedated to minimize his anxiety and discomfort during this procedure. A long, thin catheter, or tube, is inserted into a large artery in his groin, then maneuvered all the way through blood vessels into his chest. Once the tube reaches his carotid artery, dye is injected, which travels through the artery into the brain. Then a series of X-rays is taken to spot any abnormalities in the blood vessels of the brain. Because this procedure carries a slight risk of causing another stroke, it will be performed only if other tests are inconclusive.

How to help a stroke patient

Treatment to prevent future strokes and monitoring for complications


Depending on the patient's test results, his doctors will treat him to reduce his risk of having another stroke:

• For an ischemic stroke, he may be given anticlotting drugs, have a procedure known as a carotid endarectomy, or both.

• For a hemorrhagic stroke, he may need to have a torn brain artery or aneurysm repaired, both of which require major surgery.

• No matter what type of stroke he had, risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes will be evaluated and treated.

• Complications could include brain swelling, seizures, clots in his legs, aspiration due to difficulty swallowing, arrhythmias, bleeding stomach ulcers, and pressure sores. The patient's doctors will be on the lookout for these serious and potentially fatal complications.

How to help a stroke patient


The patient's hospital stay may be even more stressful for you than his stroke and time in the ER. Now that you're no longer in crisis mode, you have more time to think -- and worry -- about the future. But try to use that time to prepare for life after his discharge instead:

  • Figure out how much care he will need. The extent of his stroke-related disability may not be immediately obvious, but it will become clearer as his recovery progresses. Talk to his rehabilitation team about how much care he'll need immediately after discharge, then discuss options for his care with his family or friends. Will he be able to return to his own home or to a family me mber's home? Or will he need more short-term or long-term attention and care? For more information about this decision-making process, see How Much Care Will Your Parent Need After a Stroke?
  • Make necessary changes to your or the patient's home. If it looks like he might be able to return to his or another family member's home, this is the time to start making that home more comfortable and accessible. To get started, see Making Your Parent's Home Safer After a Stroke .
  • Gather your resources. You're going to need all the help and support you can get during the patient's stroke recovery period. The Family Caregiver Alliance is one resource to investigate, and family and friends will probably be willing to help. Don't hesitate to gratefully accept their assistance.
  • Learn as much as you can from the hospital staff. Believe it or not, the patient's hospital stay is likely to be over before you know it. While he's there, ask questions and make the most of the resources available. Nurses can help train you with such things as performing wheelchair transfers, dealing with bowel or bladder incontinence, and avoiding pressure sores. A nutritionist can help you plan for any special dietary needs, especially if the person you're caring for has difficulty swallowing.
  • Try to be patient. It can be very upsetting to see the person you're caring for in the throes of poststroke complications, and he may actually get worse before he gets better. His brain may need time to recover from circulation problems or swelling before the extent of his disability -- or his lack thereof -- will become clear. In other words, you may not be able to see any improvement at this point, but that doesn't mean things aren't going to get better. Stay positive.
  • Focus on recovery. The patient's stroke recovery begins in the hospital. Most spontaneous recovery actually occurs during the first days to weeks after a stroke. The person you're caring for should begin working with the hospital rehabilitation team as soon as he's stable. Your encouragement and support will be especially important as he begins the difficult work of recovery .


Stephanie Trelogan

Stephanie Trelogan writes about heart disease, stroke, and depression issues that concern people caring for their aging parents. See full bio

about 1 month, said...

I had what's diagnosed as Ischemic stroke 3 1/2 months ago and recovering at rapid rate. I was unconscious for 10 days before "awakening", literally I was a "vegetable" that 1st day. Now I'm developing hyper senses - detecting and tracing electrical currents via right ear only. Remarkable vision and random photographic memory - all a result my brain being imbalanced and overcompensating. Other common problems continue to persist, but progressing sluggishly. In the aftermath of hospital discharge, there's also been legal complications, loss of many documents, missed appointments (was not aware of appointments until lately), and a Temporary Power of Attorney assigned has only complicated things and NOT done what was instructed via docs and insurance. So, I'm combating that too while taking charge of my recovery. Though I seem above average and incredibly intelligent to many, including neurology specialists, at this time, I feel its' only temporary and I've resumed treatment I should have done since my initial discharge from hospital. This past 2 weeks, I've exceeded requirements of all tests to return to work, drive, "normalcy" skills, etc..Most would be and are happy I seem to be doing so amazingly well. However, I live in fear because I know this is not normal. Also, my brain is NOT regulating body chemistry and other perfunctory functions as well.

over 2 years, said...

mother had a stroke two weeks ago left without speech and swallowing reflex, another stroke today snoring and moves but eyes closed

almost 4 years, said...

I feel so helpless its been a week now and my mom is still confused delusional and is having trouble breathing has she had some complications and was place on life support

almost 5 years, said...

I am 3and a half years post stroke, and I continue to improve; not dramatically, but very slowly and consistently.Doctors know little about stroke recovery and do not tell the truth anyway. Positive attitude, confidence in yourself and being as active as possible is key.Keep at it and do not give up on yourself. Marta

over 5 years, said...

She has her eyes open but no movement her eyes are gloosy and her eyes look everywhere almost in a frantic motion but doesnt move onlg to swallow the food from her feeding tube was sadated and when they tranfered her from er to icu they lowered the sadation and she reached up for her tube to pull it out and was put in restrants is this a good sign or just a reflex from the life supprt tube in her throat

over 5 years, said...

My mother has had a stroke that involed the left side of her brain to start to bleed she is motionless and has been in hospital for almost 2 weeks on life support. Do u think she can recover from it ? And is their anything that should be done to better her survival