Original Editor - Wendy Walker Top Contributors - Wendy Walker, Rachael Lowe, Laura Ritchie, Kim Jackson and Naomi O'Reilly


According to the World Health Organisation a Stroke is defined as an accident to the brain with "rapidly developing clinical signs of focal or global disturbance to cerebral function, with symptoms lasting 24 hours or longer, or leading to death, with no apparent cause other than of vascular origin and includes cerebral infarction, intracerebral hemorrhage, and subarachnoid hemorrhage".

Epidemiology/ Etiology

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 million people suffer stroke worldwide each year. Of these, 5 million die and another 5 million are left permanently disabled.[1] The 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study suggested Stroke is the second leading cause of death globally and the third leading cause of premature death and disability as measured in Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALY). Cerebrovascular disease is the largest neurologic contributor and accounts for 4.1% of total global DALY.

Stroke kills more than 49,000 people each year in the UK, nearly 1 in 10. In 2010 stroke was the fourth largest cause of death in the UK after cancer, heart disease and respiratory disease.[2]

Read more about Epidemiology, Incidence and Global Burden of Stroke

Clinically Relevant Anatomy

Circle of Willis
At the base of the brain, the carotid and vertebrobasilar arteries form a circle of communicating arteries known as the Circle of Willis. From this circle, other arteries—the anterior cerebral artery (ACA), the middle cerebral artery (MCA) and posterior cerebral artery (PCA)—arise and travel to all parts of the brain.

The image below clearly shows the function areas of the cerebral cortex that can be affected following insufficiency of the blood supply.

Brain function related to anatomy.jpg

Mechanism of Injury / Pathological Process


A stroke occurs when there is interruption of the blood supply to a particular area of the brain, ultimately leading to cell injury and cell death.
Strokes can be classified in two ways:


Ischaemic strokes are the most common, accounting for up to 80% of strokes, and occur when there is an occlusion of a blood vessel impairing the flow of blood to the brain.

Ischaemic Strokes are divided into:

  1. Thrombotic - Where a blood clot forms in a main brain artery or within the small blood vessels deep inside the brain. The clot usually forms around atherosclerotic plaques.
  2. Embolic - A blood clot, air bubble or fat globule forms within a blood vessel elsewhere in the body and is carried to the brain. 
  3. Systemic Hypoperfusion - A general decrease in blood supply, eg. in shock.
  4. Venous Thrombosis


Haemorrhagic Strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds.

  1. Intracerebral Haemorrhagic Stroke — there is bleeding from a blood vessel within the brain. High blood pressure is the main cause of intracerebral haemorrhagic stroke.
  2. Subarachnoid Haemorrhagic Stroke — there is bleeding from a blood vessel between the surface of the brain and the arachnoid tissues that cover the brain.

Nb. Some experts do not classify Subarachnoid Haemorrhage as Stroke because subarachnoid haemorrhages present differently from Ischaemic Strokes and Intracerebral Haemorrhagic Strokes.

Clinical Presentation

Cortical Areas and their vascular supply:

PP Cerebral vascular territories.jpg  PP Cerebral vascular territories 1.jpg

Location of Infarct & Deficits Produced:

Left MCA Superficial Division

Right face and arm upper-motor weakness due to damage to motor cortex, nonfluent (Broca’s) aphasia due to damage to Broca’s area. There may also be right face and arm cortical type sensory loss if the infarct involves the sensory cortex. Other deficits include a fluent (Wernicke’s) aphasia due to damage to Wernicke’s area. [Aphasia: a disturbance of the comprehension and expression of language]

Right MCA Superficial Division

Left face and arm upper-motor weakness due to damage to motor cortex. Left hemineglect (variable) due to damage to non-dominant association areas. There may also be left face and arm cortical type sensory loss if the infarct involves the sensory cortex.

Left MCA Lenticulostriate Branches

Right pure upper-motor hemiparesis due to damage to the basal ganglia (globus pallidus and striatum) and the genu of the internal capsule on the left side. Larger infarcts extending to the cortex may produce cortical deficits such as aphasia.

Right MCA Lenticulostriate Branches

Left pure upper-motor hemiparesis due to damage to the basal ganglia (globus pallidus and striatum) and the genu of the internal capsule on the right side. Larger infarcts extending to the cortex may produce cortical deficits such aphasia.

Left PCA

Right homonymous hemianopia due to damage to left visual cortex in the occipital lobe. Extension to the the corpus collusom interferes with comunication between the two visual association areas so can cause alexia without agraphia. Larger infarcts involving the internal capsule and thalamus may cause right hemisensory loss and right hemiparesis due to disruption of the ascending and descending information passing through these structures. [Hemoanopia: visual loss in half of the visual field]

Right PCA

Left homonymous hemianopia due to damage to right visual cortex in the occipital lobe. Larger infarcts involving the internal capsule and thalamus may cause left hemisensory loss and left hemiparesis due to disruption of the ascending and descending information passing through these structures.

Left ACA

Right leg upper-motor neuron weakness due to damage to motor cortex and right leg cortical sensory loss due to damage to sensory cortex. Grasp reflex, frontal lobe behavioral abnormalities, and transcortical aphasia can also be seen if the prefrontal cortex and supplemental motor areas are involved.

Right ACA

Left leg upper-motor neuron weakness due to damage to motor cortex and left leg cortical type sensory loss due to damage to sensory cortex. Grasp reflex, frontal lobe behavioural abnormalities and left hemineglect can also be seen if the prefrontal cortex and non-dominant association cortex are involved.




Outcome Measures

NIH Stroke Scale

Dynamic Gait Index, the 4-item Dynamic Gait Index, and the Functional Gait Assessment show sufficient validity, responsiveness, and reliability for assessment of walking function in patients with stroke undergoing rehabilitation, but the Functional Gait Assessment is recommended for its psychometric properties[7].

Chedoke-McMaster Stroke Assessment

Chedoke Arm and Hand Activity Inventory

CRS-R Coma Recovery Scale Revised is used to assess patients with a disorder of consciousness, commonly coma.

Take a look at our Stroke Outcome Measures Overview for more information

Management / Interventions

Early management of acute stroke:

The goal for the acute management of patients with stroke is to stabilize the patient and to complete initial evaluation and assessment, including imaging and laboratory studies, within a short time frame. Critical decisions focus on the need for intubation, blood pressure control, and determination of risk/benefit for thrombolytic intervention.[8]

Patients presenting with Glasgow Coma Scale scores of 8 or less or rapidly decreasing Glasgow Coma Scale scores, require emergent airway control via intubation.

A recent study has shown gait improvement with high-intensity interval training and moderate-intensity continuous training in ambulatory chronic stroke patients. According to post-stroke guidelines, moderate-intensity, continuous aerobic training (MCT) improves aerobic capacity and mobility after stroke. High-intensity interval training (HIT) has been shown to be more effective than MCT among healthy adults and people with heart disease.


Physiotherapists should be involved early and should make their own assessment of how much they can work with a patient. Early mobilisation is associated with better outcomes - even after taking account of the potential confounding influence of disease severity. If rehabilitation is to take place on a different ward from acute care, the care received should be made as seamless as possible. Type and intensity of therapy should be determined by the patient's needs not location.[9]

Primary goals of rehabilitation:

  1. Prevent complications
  2. Minimise impairments
  3. Maximise function

Optimising post stroke rehabilitation:

  1. Early assessment with standardised evaluations and validated assessment tools
  2. Early employment of evidence based interventions relevant to individual patient needs
  3. Patient access to an experienced multidisciplinary rehabilitation team
  4. ongoing medical management of risk factors and co-morbidities

A randomized controlled trial suggests the CARE4STROKE program had a positive outcome on anxiety and depression of the patients[10].

Upper Limb

Upper Limb Impairments:

  • Subluxation
  • Changes in Sensation
  • Contracture
  • Swelling
  • Co-ordination Problems
  • Weakness
  • Altered Muscle Power
  • Changes in Muscle Tone
  • Hand Dysfunction

Aims of Treatment:

  • Prevent shoulder pain and if unable to do so, manage should pain effectively.
  • Be selective when choosing compensatory versus remedial intervention methods to treat clients who are predicted to have a low return of motor function and poor functional use of their arm and hand.
  • Provide remedially focused rehabilitation to clients who are predicted to change in arm and hand function.
  • Use measures of known reliability and evidence of validity for treatment planning and outcome prediction.

In the upper extremity with severe impairment and/or poor prognosis for recovery (Chedoke McMaster Stroke Assessment (CMSA) of Arm and Hand < Stage 4) treatment should focus on maintaining a comfortable, pain-free, mobile arm and hand[11][12].

  • Focus on proper positioning to provide support at rest and careful handling during functional activities
  • Participate in classes supervised by professional rehabilitation clinicians in institutional or community setting that teach the client and caregiver to perform self range of motion exercises.
  • Avoid use of overhead pulleys (risk of shoulder tissue injury)
  • Use some means of external support for stage 1 or 2 upper limb during transfers and mobility
  • Place arm and hand in a variety of positions that include placement with in the client’s visual field
  • Use some means of external support to protect the upper limb during wheelchair use

In the upper extremity with moderate impairments who show high motivation and potential for functional motor gains (CMSA => stage 4)[11][12] 

  • Engage in repetitive and intense use of novel tasks that challenge the stroke survivor to acquire necessary motor skills to use the involved upper limb during functional tasks and  activities  
  • Engage in motor-learning training including the use of imagery. 

Treatment Techniques:

  • Strength Training - There is evidence that strength training can improve upper-limb strength and function without increasing tone or pain in individuals with stroke[13][14].
  • Modified Constraint-Induced Movement Therapy (mCIMT) and CIMT address learned non-use and decreased motor function in an upper extremity affected by post stroke[15] Some studies suggest that performing aerobic exercise prior to m-CIMT enhances the outcomes[16].
  • Orthotics - therapy incorporating a dynamic wrist-hand orthosis may be no better than manual therapy[17].  Long term use of static orthoses requires complimentary appropriate treatment opportunities to prevent clenched fist, problems with ADL and hygiene maintenance[18]
  • Gaming - goal orientated computer gaming has proven to singificantly reduce upper limb impairment in stroke suvivors[19][20]
  • Virtual Reality - virtual reality training has been shown to be effective in restoring upper limb motor impairments and motor related functional abilities[21][22]
  • Mirror Therapy - Mirror therapy has been shown to have a beneficial effect on motor control and function compared with conventional therapy[23][24][25]
  • Robot-Assited Therapy - has been shown to have abeneficial effect on motor recovery and function[26][27][28]

Clinical Guidelines

Overall Management: National clinical guideline for stroke, The Royal College of Physicians, September 2012

Acute Care


Differential Diagnosis

  • Hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia need to be identified and treated early in the evaluation. Not only can both produce symptoms that mimic ischemic stroke, but they can also aggravate ongoing neuronal ischaemia.
  • Hemiplegic Migraine


Presentations presentation title.png
Stroke: PT Assessment and Management

This presentation, created by Dr. L. Surbala (MPT Neuro), discusses etiology, risk factors, stages of recovery, impairments and recovery from stroke.

Stroke: PT Assessment and Management/ View the presentation practices stroke presentation title.png
Best Practices in Stroke Rehabilitation: The US Experience

This presentation, created by Dr. R.D. Zorowitz MD, discusses current practices in stroke rehabilitation.

Best Practices in Stroke Rehabilitation: The US Experience/ View the presentation


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