Watershed Stroke Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

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A watershed stroke is given that name because it affects one or more of the regions of the brain that are called watershed areas.

The watershed areas are regions of the brain that simultaneously receive blood supply from two separate groups of arteries. If the blood supply is decreased (by blockage of the vessel or restriction of blood flow) it can be problematic, resulting in a watershed stroke.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The symptoms of a watershed stroke might include weakness or paralysis, especially of the legs, and mood disturbances. Some individuals experience vision loss in half of their field of vision.Watershed strokes cause seizures more often than do other types of stroke.

A watershed stroke can often be diagnosed through a neurological history and physical examination and can often be identified on a brain CT or a brain MRI.

Causes

Ischemic Stroke

A blood clot interrupting blood supply to a region of the brain can cause an ischemic stroke in any location of the brain, including the watershed regions. Ischemia causes an area of the brain to "starve" because blood provides vital nutrients and oxygen. The affected region of the brain cannot function in the setting of ischemia, which results in a stroke.

The watershed regions of the brain are located at the farthest end branches of two adjacent vascular territories (arterial supply systems.) This means that two separate sets of arteries supply blood to the watershed regions. This arrangement seems like it would protect the watershed areas from ischemia, but it doesn't. In fact, the watershed regions rely on both sets of arteries to provide adequate blood supply, so if one arterial supply system is interrupted by a blood clot, the watershed region of the brain suffers from interrupted blood flow, which results in an ischemic stroke.

Low Fluid Volume/ Low Blood Pressure

Because the watershed areas are the farthest regions supplied by arterial supply systems, adequate blood flow and blood pressure must be maintained to ensure that enough blood is pumped into these areas. Watershed areas are at high risk during extreme drops of blood pressure.

If low blood flow to watershed areas lasts for longer than a few minutes, the tissues in the watershed areas begin to die, causing a stroke due to low blood volume.

Common triggers for watershed strokes include events that affect the blood supply to the brain. Heart attacks, which affect the pumping ability of the heart, potentially cause significantly diminished blood flow to the brain. Watershed areas may also be vulnerable to low blood pressure in people who have advanced carotid stenosis, which is narrowing of the blood vessels in the neck that carry blood to the brain.

The conditions that can cause sudden or severely low blood pressure include severe dehydration, which results in an overall low volume of fluid in the whole body. Severe infections, such as sepsis, an infection that has spread throughout the bloodstream, may cause the blood pressure to drop dramatically, potentially causing a watershed stroke. Profuse bleeding, which may result from major injury and trauma, can cause such a significant amount of blood loss that the brain does not receive enough blood supply to the watershed regions.

Treatment

Like all strokes, watershed strokes require urgent medical attention. The management of watershed strokes includes close observation and careful medical management.

If you have had an ischemic watershed stroke caused by a blood clot, then you should expect to receive stroke treatments focused on blood thinners and medical stabilization. If you get medical treatment quickly, you might be a candidate for tissue plasminogen activator treatment, which is given intravenously to dissolve the clot. Sometimes procedures can be carried out to remove the clot via stenting or suctioning.

If you have had a watershed stroke as a result of severe blood loss or low blood pressure, then your treatment is more likely to be focused on maintaining adequate fluid and blood pressure.

A Word From Verywell

A stroke is a major event that changes your life. As you recover from your stroke, you will most likely get a medical workup that identifies whether you have stroke risk factors. If you learn that you have any of the stroke risk factors, you can take steps to prevent another stroke from happening.

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Article Sources

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  4. American Stroke Association. Ischemic stroke treatment. Reviewed December 5, 2018.

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