Significant changes have occurred in the updated American Heart Association Stroke Council’s recommendations for early management of acute ischemic stroke (AIS). Conceptually, early management can be separated into initial triage and decisions about intervention to restore blood flow with thrombolysis or mechanical thrombectomy. If reperfusion therapy is not appropriate, then the focus is on management to minimize further damage from the stroke, decrease the likelihood of recurrence, and lessen secondary problems related to the stroke.

All patients with AIS should receive noncontrast CT to determine if there is evidence of a hemorrhagic stroke and, if such evidence exists, than the patient is not a candidate for thrombolysis. Intravenous alteplase should be considered for patients who present within 3 hours of stroke onset and for selected patients presenting between 3-4.5 hours after stroke onset (for more details, see Table 6 in the guidelines). Selected patients with AIS who present within 6-24 hours of last time they were known to be normal and who have large vessel occlusion in the anterior circulation, may be candidates for mechanical thrombectomy in specialized centers. Patients who are not candidates for acute interventions should then be managed according to early stroke management guidelines.

Early stroke management for patients with AIS admitted to medical floors involves attention to blood pressure, glucose, and antiplatelet therapy. For patients with blood pressure lower than 220/120 mm Hg who did not receive IV alteplase or thrombectomy, treatment of hypertension in the first 48-72 hours after an AIS does not change the outcome. It is reasonable when patients have BP greater than or equal to 220/120 mm Hg, to lower blood pressure by 15% during the first 24 hours after onset of stroke. Starting or restarting antihypertensive therapy during hospitalization in patients with blood pressure higher than 140/90 mm Hg who are neurologically stable improves long-term blood pressure control and is considered a reasonable strategy.

For patients with noncardioembolic AIS, the use of antiplatelet agents rather than oral anticoagulation is recommended. Patients should be treated with aspirin 160 mg-325 mg within 24-48 hours of presentation. In patients unsafe or unable to swallow, rectal or nasogastric administration is recommended. In patients with minor stroke, 21 days of dual-antiplatelet therapy (aspirin and clopidogrel) started within 24 hours can decrease stroke recurrence for the first 90 days after a stroke. This recommendation is based on a single study, the CHANCE trial , in a homogeneous population in China, and its generalizability is not known. If a patient had an AIS while already on aspirin, there is some evidence supporting a decreased risk of major cardiovascular events and recurrent stroke in patients switching to an alternative antiplatelet agent or combination antiplatelet therapy. Because of methodologic issues in the those studies, the guideline concludes that, for those already on aspirin, it is of unclear benefit to increase the dose of aspirin, switch to a different antiplatelet agent, or add a second antiplatelet agent. Switching to warfarin is not beneficial for secondary stroke prevention. High-dose statin therapy should be initiated. For patients with AIS in the setting of atrial fibrillation, oral anticoagulation can be started within 4-14 days after the stroke. One study showed that anticoagulation should not be started before 4 days after the stroke, with a hazard ratio of 0.53 for starting anticoagulation at 4-14 days, compared with less than 4 days.

Hyperglycemia should be controlled to a range of 140-180 mg/dL, because higher values are associated with worse outcomes. Oxygen should be used if needed to maintain oxygen saturation greater than 94%. High-intensity statin therapy should be used, and smoking cessation is strongly encouraged for those who use tobacco, with avoidance of secondhand smoke whenever possible.

Patients should be screened for dysphagia before taking anything per oral, including medications. A nasogastric tube may be considered within the first 7 days, if patients are dysphagic. Oral hygiene protocols may include antibacterial mouth rinse, systematic oral care, and decontamination gel to decrease the risk of pneumonia .

For deep vein thrombosis prophylaxis, intermittent pneumatic compression, in addition to the aspirin that a patient is on is reasonable, and the benefit of prophylactic-dose subcutaneous heparin (unfractionated heparin or low-molecular-weight heparin) in immobile patients with AIS is not well established.

In the poststroke setting, patients should be screened for depression and, if appropriate, treated with antidepressants. Regular skin assessments are recommended with objective scales, and skin friction and pressure should be actively minimized with regular turning, good skin hygiene, and use of specialized mattresses, wheelchair cushions, and seating until mobility returns. Early rehabilitation for hospitalized stroke patients should be provided, but high-dose, very-early mobilization within 24 hours of stroke should not be done because it reduces the odds of a favorable outcome at 3 months.

Completing the diagnostic evaluation for the cause of stroke and decreasing the chance of future strokes should be part of the initial hospitalization. While MRI is more sensitive than is CT for detecting AIS, routine use of MRI in all patients with AIS is not cost effective and therefore is not recommended. For patients with nondisabling AIS in the carotid territory and who are candidates for carotid endarterectomy or stenting, noninvasive imaging of the cervical vessels should be performed within 24 hours of admission, with plans for carotid revascularization between 48 hours and 7 days if indicated. Cardiac monitoring for at least the first 24 hours of admission should be performed, while primarily looking for atrial fibrillation as a cause of stroke. In some patients, prolonged cardiac monitoring may be reasonable. With prolonged cardiac monitoring, atrial fibrillation is newly detected in nearly a quarter of patients with stroke or TIA, but the effect on outcomes is uncertain. Routine use of echocardiography is not recommended but may be done in selected patients. All patients should be screened for diabetes. It is not clear whether screening for thrombophilic states is useful.

All patients should be counseled on stroke, and provided education about it and how it will affect their lives. Following their acute medical stay, all patients will benefit from rehabilitation, with the benefits associated using a program tailored to their needs and outcome goals.

The bottom line

Early management of stroke involves first determining whether someone is a candidate for reperfusion therapy with alteplase or thrombectomy and then, if not, admitting them to a monitored setting to screen for atrial fibrillation and evaluation for carotid stenosis. Patients should be evaluated for both depression and swallowing function, and there should be initiation of deep vein thrombosis prevention, appropriate management of elevated blood pressures, anti-platelet therapy, and statin therapy as well as plans for rehabilitation services.


Powers WJ et al. on behalf of the American Heart Association Stroke Council. 2018 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. 2018 Mar;49(3):e46-e110 .

Dr. Skolnik is a professor of family and community medicine at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, and an associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health. Dr. Callahan is an attending physician and preceptor in the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health.