New Stroke Management Guidelines: A Quick and Easy Guide

Bret S. Stetka, MD; Helmi L. Lutsep, MD

February 27, 2013

Introduction and Prehospital Care

On January 31, 2013, the American Heart Association (AHA) and the American Stroke Association (ASA) released new recommendations[1] for the early management of acute stroke, replacing the 2007 guidelines and subsequent 2009 update. The AHA/ASA statement points out that while significant progress has been made in stroke prevention and care -- with stroke falling from the third to the fourth leading cause of death in the United States in 2008 -- the new guidelines are intended to further hone stroke care for physicians, prehospital providers, and other healthcare personnel involved in stroke management. The following summary serves as a quick reference guide to the new guidelines, reviewing both what was unchanged from the previous guidelines as well as what is new or revised.

Prehospital Care

The Basics:

Stroke education


Prehospital assessment tools

Field management

Rapid transport to stroke center

Prehospital notification

The Bottom Line: The prehospital management section focuses on limiting delays and recognizes that interhospital transfers of acute stroke patients for higher-level care are increasingly common.

Unchanged: Physicians and hospital and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel should participate in stroke education programs; 911 services should be used with stroke reports prioritized; and prehospital providers should use diagnostic criteria, such as the Los Angeles Prehospital Stroke Screen or the Cincinnati Prehospital Stroke Scale, and initiate management in the field.

Revised: Patients should be transported to the closest certified primary or comprehensive stroke center or, when such an institution is not available, the closest facility offering emergency stroke care. In some instances, this may involve air medical transport and hospital bypass. Field personnel should notify the receiving facility that a potential stroke patient will be arriving to facilitate resource mobilization.

Stroke Center Designation/Quality Improvement

The Basics:

Establish primary and comprehensive stroke centers

Establish acute stroke-ready hospitals

Independent, external certification

Quality improvement committee

Bypass unequipped hospitals

Teleradiology when necessary

Telestroke consultation

The Bottom Line: The section highlights the emergence of comprehensive stroke centers and their integration into regional systems of care. Teleradiology is developing as a resource while data continue to support the use of telemedicine and quality improvement processes in stroke care.

Unchanged: Where resources are available, establishing affiliated primary and comprehensive stroke centers is recommended. Hospitals without adequate stroke care resources should be bypassed by EMS personnel in favor of the closest facility with adequate resources.

Revised: Stroke centers should ideally be certified by an independent external organization (ie, The Joint Commission, state health department).

New: Forming quality improvement committees and stroke care data banks is recommended. US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved teleradiology systems are recommended for CT and MRI scan review in patients with a suspected acute stroke when the care sites lack in-house imaging interpretation expertise; such systems can aid in fibrinolysis decision-making. Telestroke consultation, along with education and training, at centers without adequate stroke expertise can increase the appropriate use of intravenous (IV) recombinant tissue-type plasminogen activator (rtPA). Establishing acute stroke-ready hospitals affiliated with primary and comprehensive stroke centers is recommended when possible.

Emergency Evaluation and Diagnosis

The Basics:

Organized protocol

Stroke rating scale

Hematologic, coagulation, and biochemistry tests

Only blood glucose must precede rtPA

The Bottom Line: Fibrinolytic therapy should now not be delayed while awaiting laboratory test results other than a glucose determination, except in selected patients.

Unchanged: Apply an organized protocol for the emergency evaluation of patients with suspected stroke, ideally completing evaluation and fibrinolytic treatment within 60 minutes of patient arrival. A neurologic exam should be included in the clinical assessment and a stroke team including physicians, nurses, laboratory personnel, and radiology personnel should be designated. Using a stroke rating scale -- namely the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale (NIHSS) -- is recommended.

Revised: Recommended tests for all patients* suspected of an acute ischemic stroke include blood glucose, oxygen saturation, electrolytes/renal function tests, complete blood count, troponin assessment, prothrombin time/international normalized ratio (INR), activated partial thromboplastin time, and an ECG; only a blood glucose measurement must precede IV rtPA administration.

*For a complete list of tests to consider in selected patients, see the original publication.[1]

Imaging: Symptoms Unresolved

The Basics:

Noncontrast CT or MRI prior to therapy

IV fibrinolysis if ischemic changes present

Possible intracranial vascular study

Consider CT/MRI perfusion and diffusion imaging

Large CT hypodensity → withhold rtPA

The Bottom Line: While advanced imaging techniques may help to select patients outside of the fibrinolysis time window, noncontrast CT or MRI can exclude hemorrhage and hypodensity involving more than one third of the middle cerebral artery territory prior to fibrinolytic therapy.

Unchanged: In patients in whom ischemic symptoms have not resolved, brain imaging is recommended prior to initiating therapy. In most cases, a CT scan provides adequate information to inform treatment decisions.

Revised: Noncontrast CT scan or MRI -- ideally interpreted within 45 minutes -- is recommended prior to rtPA administration to exclude hemorrhagic stroke and assess for signs of ischemia. If early ischemic changes are present, IV fibrinolytic therapy is recommended. And if intra-arterial fibrinolysis or mechanical thrombectomy is being considered -- which should not delay IV rtPA -- a noninvasive intracranial vascular study is recommended during imaging. Consider CT/MRI perfusion and diffusion imaging to help select patients for reperfusion therapy beyond the fibrinolysis time window. Lastly, fibrinolysis in the setting of a "frank hypodensity" on noncontrast CT may increase hemorrhage risk; if more than one third of the middle cerebral artery territory is involved IV rtPA should be avoided.

Imaging: Symptoms Resolved

The Basics:

Suspected transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) → Noninvasive cervical vessel imaging

Transient ischemic symptoms → Neuroimaging within 24 hours

Steno-occlusive disease → CT angiography or MR angiography of intracranial vasculature

The Bottom Line: MRI remains preferred over CT for imaging patients with suspected TIAs because it can provide insight into whether a stroke has occurred.

Unchanged: In patients with suspected TIAs, noninvasive imaging of cervical vessels is indicated. In those with transient ischemic neurologic symptoms, neuroimaging is recommended within 24 hours of symptom onset or as soon as possible in cases of delayed presentation. MRI is preferred over CT.

Revised: In cases of known steno-occlusive disease, CT angiography or MR angiography of intracranial vasculature is recommended to assess for proximal intracranial stenosis and/or occlusion. Catheter angiography is necessary to confirm diagnosis and assess stenosis severity.

Supportive Care/Addressing Complications (Unchanged)

The Basics:

Lower blood pressure (BP) to < 185/110 mm Hg before rtPA

Maintain BP below 180/105 mm Hg for at least 24 hours after rtPA

Airway support if necessary

Treat hyperthermia

No O2 if not hypoxic

The Bottom Line: While the recommendation is to pursue continuous cardiac monitoring for at least 24 hours, recent data suggest that Holter monitoring for longer periods may be more useful for the detection of atrial fibrillation. BP management in those acute stroke patients who have not received fibrinolytics continues to be limited by insufficient data to guide timing and target pressure goals.

Unchanged: Though data do not exist guiding antihypertensive selection in acute ischemic stroke, elevated BP should be lowered to < 185 mm Hg/< 110 mm Hg before rtPA is given and maintained below 180/105 mm Hg for at least 24 hours after starting therapy; these recommendations also apply to patients undergoing recanalization procedures (including intra-arterial fibrinolysis). In cases of decreased consciousness or bulbar dysfunction, airway support and ventilatory assistance are recommended. Sources of hyperthermia should be identified and treated and, in nonhypoxic patients, supplemental oxygen is not recommended.

Supportive Care/Addressing Complications (Revised)

The Basics:

Cardiac monitoring

Oxygen and hypovolemia correction

Lower BP in those not receiving fibrinolysis; medication only if BP > 200 mm Hg/120 mmHg

Pre-existing hypertension→ Restart medication

Treat glucose abnormalities

Revised: Cardiac monitoring for at least 24 hours is recommended to screen for arrhythmias, which, if present, should be corrected. Hypovolemia should be corrected with IV saline, and supplemental oxygen should be administered to achieve > 94% saturation. Lowering BP by 15% during the first 24 hours following stroke onset is considered a reasonable goal in patients with high BP not receiving fibrinolysis, bearing in mind that, according to the new guidelines, "consensus exists that medications should be withheld unless the systolic BP is > 220 mm Hg or the diastolic BP is > 120 mm Hg." Antihypertensive medications can be restarted in stable patients with pre-existing hypertension after 24 hours, and one trial[2] even supports resuming therapy within 24 hours. Blood glucose < 60 mg/dL should be treated, ideally to normal, and hyperglycemia should be treated to a range of 140-180 mg/dL.

Intravenous Fibrinolysis

The Basics:

IV rtPA in eligible patients at up to 4.5 hours; treatment within 60 minutes of presentation to hospital ideal

IV rtPA contingent upon BP control

Additional rtPA exclusion criteria for 3- to 4.5-hour window

Other fibrinolytic or defibrinogenating agents not recommended

Sonothrombolysis efficacy not well established

rtPA is not recommended if taking direct thrombin inhibitors or direct factor Xa inhibitors, unless qualified based on lab panel (see caption)

The Bottom Line: The authors of the current guidelines note that the FDA declined to approve IV rtPA within the 3- to 4.5-hour window in the United States but, after reviewing the decision correspondence to which the authors had partial access, felt that the existing grade B recommendation remained reasonable. The guidelines also provide support for the use of rtPA in certain previously excluded groups, such as those with rapidly improving neurologic symptoms or with recent myocardial infarction, while weighing potential risks and benefits. They also emphasize early treatment.

Unchanged: IV rtPA at a dose of 0.9 mg/kg (maximum dose 90 mg) is recommended if patients can be treated within 3 hours of symptom onset and if BP can be lowered with antihypertensives to below 185/110 mm Hg. rtPA is appropriate in patients who have also suffered a seizure, provided residual symptoms are stroke related and not postictal.

Revised: rtPA is recommended in eligible patients in the 3- to 4.5-hour window. Eligibility criteria are similar to those for the 3-hour window except for the exclusion of patients over 80 years old, those on oral anticoagulants, those with a baseline NIHSS score > 25, those with imaging evidence of ischemic damage to more than one third of the middle cerebral artery (MCA) territory, and those with a history of both stroke and diabetes mellitus. Physicians should be prepared to manage potential side effects such as bleeding and angioedema. Streptokinase is not recommended for acute stroke, nor are other fibrinolytic or defibrinogenating agents.

New: Eligible patients should receive rtPA therapy as soon as possible, ideally within 60 minutes of hospital arrival. IV fibrinolysis can be considered in patients with rapidly improving symptoms, mild stroke deficits, major surgery within the past 3 months, and recent myocardial infarction; risks should be weighed against benefits. The guidelines state that "the effectiveness of sonothrombolysis for treatment of patients with acute stroke is not well established." Lastly, rtPA is not recommended in patients taking direct thrombin inhibitors or direct factor Xa inhibitors unless tests including activated partial thromboplastin time, INR, platelet count, ecarin clotting time, thrombin time, or direct factor Xa activity are normal; or they haven't taken these agents for > 2 days.

Endovascular Interventions

The Basics:

Give IV rtPA, even if considering intra-arterial management

Early intra-arterial fibrinolysis in select patients at qualified facility

Outcomes with mechanical thrombectomy devices not fully established but can be useful in achieving recanalization in select patients

Stent retrievers preferred to coil devices; Penumbra System® vs stent retrievers not yet characterized

Emergent intracranial angioplasty and/or shunting not recommended

The Bottom Line: Two mechanical embolectomy trials in acute stroke published in 2012, SWIFT[3] and TREVO 2,[4] support the use of stent retriever devices over the use of the Merci Retriever®.

Unchanged: IV rtPA should be administered to eligible patients even if intra-arterial interventions are being considered.

Revised: Select patients with MCA strokes of < 6 hours duration who are not IV rtPA candidates can benefit from intra-arterial fibrinolysis, which should be administered at an experienced stroke center with rapid cerebral angiography capabilities and defined qualification criteria. Though their ultimate impact on patient outcomes has yet to be determined, the Merci, Penumbra System, Solitaire™ FR, and Trevo® devices can be useful in recanalizing the occluded artery, either alone or in combination with pharmacologic fibrinolysis. Intra-arterial fibrinolysis or mechanical thrombectomy can be considered in patients unqualified for IV fibrinolysis.

New: Minimizing delays in administering intra-arterial fibrinolysis improves outcomes. Stent retrievers such as Solitaire FR and Trevo are preferred to coil retrievers such as Merci, whereas the effectiveness of the Penumbra System vs stent retrievers is, as of the new guideline's publication, not yet determined. In patients with a large artery stroke who have not responded to IV fibrinolysis, intra-arterial fibrinolysis and mechanical thrombectomy are reasonable approaches. Emergent intracranial angioplasty and/or shunting do not have proven usefulness, nor does the use of these approaches in the extracranial carotid or vertebral arteries in unselected patients.


The Basics:

Urgent anticoagulation not recommended in acute ischemic stroke

Urgent anticoagulation not recommended for noncerebrovascular conditions in the setting of stroke

Anticoagulation with 24 hours of IV rtPA not recommended

Efficacy of thrombin inhibitors not well established in acute stroke

The Bottom Line: Trials have not yet provided indications for anticoagulation in acute stroke.

Unchanged: Urgent anticoagulation is not recommended in acute ischemic stroke, nor is it for noncerebrovascular conditions in the setting of moderate-to-severe strokes due to an increased risk for intracerebral hemorrhage. Anticoagulation within 24 hours of IV rtPA administration is also not recommended.

New: The usefulness of argatroban and other thrombin inhibitors in acute ischemic stroke is not well established at the time of guideline publication, nor is the usefulness of anticoagulating patients with severe stenosis of an internal carotid artery ipsilateral to an ischemic stroke.

Antiplatelet Agents

The Basics:

Aspirin within 24-48 hours

Other antiplatelet agents not recommended

The Bottom Line: Aspirin remains the only antiplatelet agent for which data support use in acute stroke, although trials with other agents are in progress.

Unchanged: Oral aspirin is recommended for most patients within 24-48 hours of initial symptoms; however, it is not a suitable substitute for other acute stroke interventions, including rtPA.

Revised: Clopidogrel's usefulness is not well established, and the use of IV antiplatelet drugs that inhibit the glycoprotein IIb/IIIa receptor is not recommended. Adjunctive aspirin, or other antiplatelet therapies, within 24 hours of IV fibrinolysis are also not recommended.

New: The efficacy of glycoprotein IIb/IIIa inhibitors tirofiban and eptifibatide is not well-established.

Volume Expansion, Vasodilators, and Induced Hypertension

The Basics:

Vasodilators not recommended

Consider vasopressors with symptomatic hypotension

Efficacy of drug-induced hypertension and hemodilution by volume not well established

The Bottom Line: In the fall of 2012, the data and safety monitoring board terminated the Albumin in Acute Stroke (ALIAS) trial[5] following an interim analysis. In the SENTIS trial[6] of mechanical augmentation of collateral flow, the group treated with the NeuroFlo device failed to meet primary efficacy outcomes compared with the control population, although they showed a trend toward reduced mortality.

Unchanged: Vasodilators such as pentoxifylline are not recommended.

Revised: In patients with neurologic symptoms due to hypotension, vasopressors are warranted. Cardiac monitoring is recommended if drug-induced hypertension is used; however, in most patients with acute ischemic stroke the usefulness of this approach is not well established, nor is the usefulness of hemodilution by volume expansion.

New: Until additional evidence is available, high-dose albumin is not appropriate for most patients, nor are devices to increase cerebral blood flow.

Neuroprotection and Surgery


The Basics:

Hyperbaric oxygen not recommended, except for air embolization

Continue statins

Transcranial near-infrared laser therapy and other neuroprotective drugs not recommended

The Bottom Line: No trial has yet shown benefit for a neuroprotective agent in acute stroke. A few agents remain in trials, such as a phase 3 trial of magnesium delivered in the field by paramedics.

Unchanged: Hyperbaric oxygen is not recommended except in cases of stroke due to air embolization.

Revised: No other potentially neuroprotective drugs are recommended, nor is induced hypothermia.

New: In patients taking statins at the time of stroke, continuing statin therapy is reasonable. The usefulness of transcranial near-infrared laser therapy is not well established at this time.


The Basics:

Urgent carotid endarterectomy efficacy not established in certain patients

The Bottom Line: Data do not currently support the use of urgent carotid endarterectomy in patients with unstable neurologic status. The risks of endarterectomy in this setting must be weighed against the risks of medical therapy.

New: When imaging studies or clinical indicators suggest a small infarct core with a large area at risk due to inadequate flow from carotid stenosis or occlusion, or in cases of neurologic sequelae following carotid endarterectomy, emergent or urgent carotid endarterectomy does not have well-established efficacy, nor is there convincing evidence that carotid endarterectomy should be used in patients with unstable neurologic status.

Hospital Admission and Treatment

The Basics:

Comprehensive stroke management with standardized care orders and rehabilitation

Swallowing assessment

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) prevention/early mobilization

Manage comorbidities and institute recurrent stroke prevention

Bladder catheters not recommended

Tube feeding if necessary

Nutritional supplements and prophylactic antibiotics not proven effective

The Bottom Line: The authors recommend the use of comprehensive, specialized stroke care (stroke units) and do not make significant changes to earlier guidelines in this area.

Unchanged: Comprehensive stroke care, standardized stroke care order sets, and rehabilitation are recommended, and swallowing ability should be assessed before patients eat, drink, or receive oral medications. Immobilized patients should be treated with subcutaneous anticoagulants to prevent DVT, while less severely affected patients should be mobilized early. Comorbid medical conditions should be managed appropriately, and recurrent stroke prevention interventions should be instituted. In patients in whom anticoagulation is contraindicated, consider aspirin for DVT prevention. Lastly, routine indwelling bladder catheters are not recommended.

Revised: Antibiotics should be used in cases of potential pneumonia or UTIs. Nasogastric, nasoduodenal, or percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy tube feeding should be used in patients unable to take liquids or solid food. Nasogastric feeding is preferred to percutaneous endoscopy gastrostomy tube feeding until 2-3 weeks post-stroke in patients who cannot take oral liquid and food. In patients in whom anticoagulation is contraindicated, consider external compression devices. Routine nutritional supplements and prophylactic antibiotics have not been shown to be beneficial.

Treating Neurologic Complications

The Basics:

Antiepileptics for recurrent seizures but not for prophylaxis

Corticosteroids not recommended

Minimize brain edema/intracranial pressure

Monitor closely and facilitate access to neurosurgical center if necessary

Decompressive surgery if necessary

Consider ventricular drain for acute hydrocephalus

The Bottom Line: While decompressive surgery has been shown to be lifesaving, the guidelines urge that the decision be made on an individual basis.

Unchanged: Antiepileptic therapy should be administered in cases of recurrent seizures following a stroke; however, prophylactic anticonvulsants are not recommended. Corticosteroids are not recommended for cerebral edema and increased intracranial pressure.

Revised: Measures should be taken to reduce risk for brain edema and increased intracranial pressure in patients with major infarctions. Patients should be closely monitored for worsening stroke symptoms and, in those at risk for malignant brain edema, consider early transfer to a facility with adequate neurologic resources if necessary. Aggressive medical treatment has been previously recommended in deteriorating patients with malignant edema due to a large cerebral infarction; however, the usefulness of this approach is not well established. Decompressive surgical evacuation of a space-occupying cerebellar infarction can prevent and treat herniation and potential compression of the brain stem. Decompressive surgery is also effective for malignant cerebral edema; however, patient age and achievable outcomes should be weighed and patient/family wishes considered. In cases of stroke-induced acute hydrocephalus, a ventricular drain can be considered.

Related Content on Medscape

New Ischemic Stroke Guidelines: The Nuts and Bolts

More on Ischemic Stroke from Medscape Reference

Medscape Slideshows


  1. Jauch EC, Saver JL, Adams HP Jr, et al. Guidelines for the early management of patients with acute ischemic stroke: a guideline for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke. 2013 Jan 31. [Epub ahead of print]

  2. Potter JF, Robinson TG, Ford GA, et al. Controlling hypertension and hypotension immediately post-stroke (CHHIPS): a randomised, placebo-controlled, double-blind pilot trial. Lancet Neurol. 2009;8:48-56.

  3. Saver JL, Jahan R, Levy EI, et al. Solitaire flow restoration device versus the Merci Retriever in patients with acute ischaemic stroke (SWIFT): a randomised, parallel-group, non-inferiority trial. Lancet. 2012;380:1241-1249.

  4. Nogueira RG, Lutsep HL, Gupta R, et al. Trevo versus Merci retrievers for thrombectomy revascularisation of large vessel occlusions in acute ischaemic stroke (TREVO 2): a randomised trial. Lancet. 2012;380:1231-1240.

  5. Albumin in Acute Ischemic Stroke Trial (ALIAS). November 2012. Accessed February 19, 2013.

  6. Shuaib A, Bornstein NM, Diener HC, et al. Partial aortic occlusion for cerebral perfusion augmentation: safety and efficacy of NeuroFlo in Acute Ischemic Stroke trial. Stroke. 2011;42:1680-1690.