When you think of a stroke, do you think of it as an emergency medical event or a chronic disease? The truth is a stroke is both.

In the United States, 795,000 people have a stroke every year, with someone having a stroke every 40 minutes. Stroke is also the leading cause of long-term disability in the United States. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in four strokes happen to people who have had a previous stroke.

The moment the first stroke symptoms appear, it’s time to call 911. The event has begun and so too has the need to treat and manage potentially lasting effects – and hopefully prevent another stroke from happening. And that’s where vascular neurologists, often called stroke doctors, come in.

What is a vascular neurologist?

A vascular neurologist specializes in diagnosing, treating and managing conditions of cerebrovascular disease, which are conditions that affect the blood vessels in the brain and spinal cord. Stroke is the most common cerebrovascular disease – hence the “stroke doctor” nickname.

What makes a ‘stroke doctor’ different from other neurologists?

All neurologists specialize in diagnosing, treating and managing conditions of the brain and central nervous system. And stroke treatment and care are part of a neurologist’s training.

But there are several subspecialties of neurology that a neurologists can pursue to gain even more experience and training, and vascular neurology is one of those subspecialties.

After completing an undergraduate degree, medical school and a three-year residency, vascular neurologists have gone on to complete a fellowship to get their in-depth training in vascular neurology.

What does a vascular neurologist do for stroke patients?

As a stroke specialist, vascular neurologists can provide both emergency and ongoing care for stroke patients. For example, emergency room stroke teams at comprehensive treatment centers like Regions Hospital Stroke Center and Methodist Hospital Stroke Center often include vascular neurologists. As part of the hospital team, vascular neurologists:

  • Quickly and accurately interpret diagnostic tests such as:
    • CT scans, which help identify a stroke diagnosis and the type of stroke (ischemic or hemorrhagic) so the right treatment and next steps can be taken.
    • Cerebral angiographies, which are X-rays that can show how blood is flowing through arteries.
  • Recommend treatment next steps after a stroke has been confirmed.
  • Administer intravenous medications like clot-busting tissue plasminogen activator, which is used to treat ischemic strokes and help reverse damage.
  • Coordinate care with other specialists and stroke team members to first stabilize the patient, and get a plan in place to begin the stroke recovery process.

But vascular neurologists can also provide care throughout the hospital stay and beyond, helping their patients manage any lasting effects and hopefully reverse stroke risk factors. Vascular neurologists can:

  • Evaluate a patient’s current brain and nervous system health – and risk factors – with the help of:
    • Diagnostic imaging tests like CT scans, MRIs and transcranial carotid ultrasounds.
    • Specialized screening tests for things like genetic brain vessel abnormalities, irregular heartbeat, depression, cognitive changes and sleep apnea.
    • A physical exam.
  • Monitor brain and nervous system symptoms or conditions, and recommend additional medications or therapies, if necessary.
  • Connect patients with new, relevant therapies or clinical trials.
  • Work with a patient’s primary care physicians, rehabilitation therapists and other specialists to help make sure care is integrated and comprehensive.

Does a vascular neurologist treat conditions other than stroke?

Yes. While some vascular neurologists may choose to focus on caring for stroke patients, their specialized training and expertise is in cerebrovascular diseases as a whole. That means they can also diagnose, treat and manage conditions like:

  • Blood vessel malformations
  • Brain aneurysms
  • Brain or spinal cord injuries
  • Blood vessel inflammation (also called cerebral vasculitis)
  • Narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the brain, including carotid artery stenosis or vertebrobasilar stenosis

When should you see a vascular neurologist after a stroke?

If you or someone you love has had a stroke, establishing a relationship with a stroke doctor is an important step in the recovery process. Having a stroke is a major risk factor for having another – and a vascular neurologist can work with you to help reduce that risk.

HealthPartners offers neurological care at more than 20 clinic locations across the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin.