Preventing further strokes

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If you’ve had one stroke, your risk of having (further) strokes increases. There are several ways to lower that risk. You can take medication to lower your blood pressure and prevent blood clots, for instance. But things like giving up smoking, getting more exercise and eating a balanced diet can have positive effects too.

Each year, around 70,000 people in Germany have another stroke (after having one in the past). The risk is higher if the first stroke was caused by a blocked blood vessel.

The following medication can reduce the risk:

  • Antiplatelets
  • Medication for high blood pressure
  • Medication for high cholesterol
  • Medication for

Giving up smoking can reduce your risk of stroke as well. Eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise can help, too.

The risk of having another stroke is also higher if you have certain medical conditions, including high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, diabetes and sleep apnea. So it's important to get them treated properly as well.

How can antiplatelets help?

People who’ve had a stroke are usually advised to take antiplatelets. This medication makes it harder for platelets to stick to blood vessel walls and to each other. This can prevent new blood clots from forming and blocking vessels in the brain. Antiplatelets normally contain one of the following active ingredients:

  • Acetylsalicylic acid: This drug can be found in painkillers like Aspirin.
  • Clopidogrel: This medication also prevents blood clots.

The doctor will talk to you about your medication options. After minor strokes, acetylsalicylic acid can be combined with clopidogrel. The treatment with these two medications starts immediately after the stroke and lasts for around two to three weeks. After that, it’s usually enough to take just one medication on a permanent basis.

Antiplatelets can have side effects. They slow down blood clotting, which can increase the likelihood of bleeding. Most bleeding is only light and harmless. More serious cases, like bleeding in the stomach, are rare. Antiplatelets can also cause stomach ulcers. Because of this, it sometimes makes sense to take additional medication to protect the stomach (known as proton pump inhibitors or PPIs).

How does reducing blood pressure help?

People with high blood pressure have a higher risk of stroke. Taking medication to reduce blood pressure decreases the risk of having another stroke. Blood pressure should average out at between 120/70 mmHg and 140/90 mmHg over the day.

Research has shown that

  • 10 out of 100 people who didn’t take blood pressure medication and
  • 8 out of 100 people who did take blood pressure medication had another stroke in the first few years after having a stroke.

Another advantage of blood pressure medication is that it reduces the risk of heart attacks and kidney disease.

How is high cholesterol treated?

People who need to lower their cholesterol levels usually take a statin. These drugs protect and stabilize blood vessel walls, which helps prevent blood clots. Statins are recommended for most people who’ve had a stroke. They also lower the risk of heart attack.

Several types of have been approved for use in Germany. So if you don't tolerate a particular type you can switch to another one. But most people tolerate these drugs quite well. One possible, but very rare, side effect is muscle ache or weakness.

Other kinds of medicine can reduce too. If aren't effective enough on their own, you can take one of the other medications as well.

What treatment helps in atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is the most common kind of constantly irregular heartbeat, and usually isn't immediately life-threatening. In the long term, though, it increases the risk of stroke. Oral anticoagulants can greatly reduce this risk.

There are two different types:

  • Direct oral anticoagulants (DOACs), also known as “novel oral anticoagulants” (NOACs).
  • Vitamin K antagonists, also known as coumarins. These include the drugs phenprocoumon (known under the trade name Marcumar) and warfarin.

Depending on the active ingredient, you take anticoagulant tablets one or two times per day.

Direct anticoagulants are probably slightly more effective than vitamin K antagonists and they don’t cause bleeding as often. So they are usually the preferred option. But if someone is taking a vitamin K antagonist and is doing well on it, there's no medical reason for them to switch to a DOAC.

The most common side effect of anticoagulants is minor bleeding, like nosebleeds or bleeding gums. Larger-scale bleeding – in the stomach or bowel, for instance – is rare. The most serious side effect of anticoagulants is a brain hemorrhage. But the risk of that happening is very low. The number of strokes anticoagulants prevent is much higher than the number of brain hemorrhages they cause.

Can surgery prevent further strokes?

Strokes are often trigged by narrow blood vessels (stenosis) due to deposits on the walls of the blood vessels in the brain or the carotid arteries in the neck. Deposits in a carotid artery can be removed by surgery. The surgery is usually done within the first two weeks of the stroke happening. Research shows that the procedure can considerably decrease the risk of having another stroke.

Stents are sometimes used to keep the blood vessel open. These tiny wire mesh tubes prevent vessels from becoming narrow or blocked again. Inserting a stent in a narrowed carotid artery prevents strokes and can be an alternative to removing vessel deposits in young people. Placing stents in narrowed blood vessels in the brain, on the other hand, is only recommended in rare cases. This is because research shows that the procedure is associated with significant risks. For example, it can lead to brain hemorrhages, which can cause strokes themselves. Doctors will only consider this approach if someone has a very narrow blood vessel that can't be treated effectively any other way (like with the usual medication). Before having this kind of procedure, the possible risks and benefits need to be weighed very carefully.

How can sports and exercise help?

An active lifestyle strengthens the heart and blood vessels. Exercise and sports can have a positive effect on cholesterol and blood pressure. They can also help you lose weight, strengthen your muscles and bones, and improve your overall fitness and wellbeing. Depending on how fit you are and what activities you enjoy, Nordic walking, jogging, cycling and swimming are good options. Strength training and exercises to improve balance and coordination are also suitable.

The recommendation is to

  • do some form of moderate physical activity on at least four days per week (a total of at least 150 minutes) and
  • train all large muscle groups twice a week (strength training).

Staying active is important even if your mobility is very limited due to a stroke. It is definitely a good idea to spend as little time as possible sitting and lying down. Getting up regularly and taking at least a few, small steps can make a difference. You can do simple mobility and strengthening exercises even when you’re in bed. Family members and nursing staff can assist you. Physical and occupational therapy can also help you improve your strength and mobility.

In Germany, local sports clubs run regular rehabilitation exercise classes for people who’ve had a stroke. These Rehasport classes include things like aerobics, active games, and swimming. Statutory health insurers cover the costs of Rehasport if a doctor has prescribed it.

Why does smoking pose a risk and how can you stop?

Smokers have a higher risk of stroke. This is because smoking damages the walls of the blood vessels, which makes blood clots more likely. Giving up smoking has other health benefits too, like preventing lung disease. Various forms of help are available for people who want to stop smoking. They include telephone helplines, courses, and nicotine replacement therapy.

Is it a good idea to change your diet and lose weight?

There is little research on how diet and weight loss affect the risk of having another stroke. But people who have an increased risk of blood vessel disease (vascular disease) can benefit from making changes if they have very little variety in their diet. The recommendation is to eat a balanced diet, for instance a “Mediterranean diet” – in other words, a diet full of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, olive oil, whole grain products, fish, and poultry. According to a number of recommendations, this type of diet contains a good mix of nutrients.

A low-salt diet leads to less water being stored in the body, which can lower blood pressure. The recommended daily intake for salt is less than 6 grams. It is possible to stick to that by not adding salt to everything you eat, for example, and not eating too many ready-made salty meals.

People who are very overweight (obese) can benefit from losing weight. The more severe their obesity and the longer it lasts, the higher the risk of a or stroke. Experts recommend losing 5 to 10% of your body weight over 6 to 12 months, depending on how heavy you were to start with. Family doctors can advise you about diet and other ways to lose weight, but you can also ask a dietitian or nutritionist.

Dietary supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids (like fish oil capsules) are marketed as being “good for heart health.” Several studies have investigated whether they prevent strokes but were unable to find any effect.

Does drinking less alcohol help?

People with a high risk of stroke are advised to limit the amount of alcohol they drink. Apart from the other health problems it causes, alcohol can make strokes more likely. People who drink a lot of alcohol on a regular basis have increased blood pressure. But it’s not possible to say exactly how much alcohol is “too much.” The German Centre for Addiction Issues has drawn up the following general recommendations:

  • Women should drink no more than 12 grams of alcohol per day – for example, a small beer (0.3 liters) or a small glass of wine (0.125 liters).
  • Men should drink no more than 24 grams of alcohol per day – for example, two small beers (0.6 liters) or a large glass of wine (0.25 liters).
  • You should have at least two alcohol-free days per week.

If you’re worried about how much alcohol you drink, there are advice centers and websites where you can get help anonymously and for free.

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Created on October 25, 2022

Next planned update: 2025


Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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