A brain stem stroke occurs when an obstructed blood vessel cuts off circulation or a blood vessel bleeds in the part of the brain known as the brain stem, the American Stroke Association says. The brain stem controls breathing, movement, consciousness and other essential functions to sustain life.
Brain stem strokes can be difficult to diagnose because they often lack one of the main symptoms of strokes elsewhere in the brain: weakness on one side of the body, the association explains. Brain stem stroke symptoms include vertigo, dizziness and imbalance, which usually occur together. Other symptoms include slurred speech, double vision and loss of consciousness.
The faster that treatment occurs for a brain stem stroke the greater the chance of recovery, the association states. Because the brain stem controls basic functions of the human body, a stroke in this part of the brain can be fatal.
The effects of a brain stem stroke vary widely, just as strokes that affect other parts of the brain. Language ability is rarely affected. Severe brain stem strokes can cause locked-in syndrome, a condition in which the patient can only move their eyes.
Brain stem strokes are caused by the same factors as other strokes, such as high blood pressure, smoking, heart disease and diabetes, Healthline says. Most stroke patients are over age 65.