Malignant cerebral edema following ischemic stroke is life threatening, as it can cause inadequate blood flow and perfusion leading to irreversible tissue hypoxia and metabolic crisis. Increased intracranial pressure and brain shift can cause herniation syndrome and finally brain death. Multiple randomized clinical trials have shown that preemptive decompressive hemicraniectomy effectively reduces mortality and morbidity in patients with malignant middle cerebral artery infarction. Another life-saving decompressive surgery is suboccipital craniectomy for patients with brainstem compression by edematous cerebellar infarction. In addition to decompressive surgery, cerebrospinal fluid drainage by ventriculostomy should be considered for patients with acute hydrocephalus following stroke. Medical treatment begins with sedation, analgesia, and general measures including ventilatory support, head elevation, maintaining a neutral neck position, and avoiding conditions associated with intracranial hypertension. Optimization of cerebral perfusion pressure and reduction of intracranial pressure should always be pursued simultaneously. Osmotherapy with mannitol is the standard treatment for intracranial hypertension, but hypertonic saline is also an effective alternative. Therapeutic hypothermia may also be considered for treatment of brain edema and intracranial hypertension, but its neuroprotective effects have not been demonstrated in stroke. Barbiturate coma therapy has been used to reduce metabolic demand, but has become less popular because of its systemic adverse effects. Furthermore, general medical care is critical because of the complex interactions between the brain and other organ systems. Some challenging aspects of critical care, including ventilator support, sedation and analgesia, and performing neurological examinations in the setting of a minimal stimulation protocol, are addressed in this review.
Keywords: Coma; Critical care; Stroke.