Cerebral Embolism and Pregnancy

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A cerebral embolism is a type of stroke that can occur in very rare instances during pregnancy, childbirth, or soon after delivery. It happens very infrequently but can be life threatening or can cause disabilities.

A stroke occurs when something interrupts the blood flow to any part of your brain. Without blood flow, your brain cannot get oxygen and brain cells in the affected area begin to die.

A pregnant woman or a woman who has recently given birth is at a higher risk of having a cerebral embolism because pregnancy makes blood clot a bit more easily. Blood clots are more likely to form in the legs of a pregnant woman because the swelling of the uterus reduces blood flow from the legs, which increases the chance of a clot forming. Stroke is also more likely in anyone with high blood pressure and diabetes, which some women develop during pregnancy.

Most strokes are due to blood clots that form in the blood vessels of the brain, called ischemic strokes. Some are caused by a rupture or leak in a blood vessel in the brain, called hemorrhagic strokes. A cerebral embolism is a type of ischemic stroke that happens when a blood clot forms elsewhere in the body and a piece breaks off and travels through the bloodstream to your brain and blocks off a blood vessel.

The chances of a cerebral embolism happening during or just after pregnancy are very, very small. It is possible, but that does not mean that it is likely to happen. Yes, pregnancy increases your chances of having a cerebral embolism but that just means that a woman is slightly more likely to have one than the average person. A study of the risks of a stroke happening in a pregnant woman was published in 2011 and evaluated several previous studies. It reported that the rate of strokes of any kind ranged in those studies from 8 to around 30 per 100,000 deliveries, with most happening after childbirth. The study pointed out that women who are not pregnant have an incidence of 10.7 strokes per 100,000 women per year.

The effects of any kind of stroke depend on several factors: What type of blood vessel it occurs in, the location in the brain, and the impact on blood flow to the area. A very small embolism may briefly block a blood vessel and then break up or move on. It may not cause any symptoms. A larger embolism could cut off blood flow can cause serious damage to the brain.

Symptoms

According to the American Stroke Association, the symptoms of any kind of a stroke include dizziness or loss of balance or coordination; confusion or trouble speaking; sudden numbness in any part of the face, arm or leg; trouble seeing; or a sudden and severe headache.

If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 or call for emergency assistance. Delaying treatment can mean that more tissue in the brain dies from lack of oxygen.

Treatment

Treatment for a stroke depends on what type of stroke has happened. If a blood clot has occurred, doctors in the hospital can administer a drug that dissolves the clot and allows blood flow to resume. But this treatment will not help if it is not administered within a few hours. The sooner a stroke is treated, the less likely that the person will have lasting disability.

Act FAST

The American Stroke Association has created a good way to remember the symptoms of a stroke, FAST, because you need to act fast if you are having symptoms or if you see symptoms in anyone else.

F – Face drooping. Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Is the person’s smile lopsided or uneven?

A – Arm weakness – Is one arm weak or numb. Can the person raise both arms and keep them up without one drifting down.

S – Speech. Is speech slurred or hard to understand?

T – Time. If F, A, and S are present, it is Time to call 911 and get the person to a hospital quickly.

Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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