Anticoagulants for acute ischaemic stroke

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 Oct 22;10(10):CD000024. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000024.pub5.


Background: Stroke is the third leading cause of early death worldwide. Most ischaemic strokes are caused by a blood clot blocking an artery in the brain. Patient outcomes might be improved if they are offered anticoagulants that reduce their risk of developing new blood clots and do not increase the risk of bleeding. This is an update of a Cochrane Review first published in 1995, with updates in 2004, 2008, and 2015.

Objectives: To assess the effectiveness and safety of early anticoagulation (within the first 14 days of onset) for people with acute presumed or confirmed ischaemic stroke. Our hypotheses were that, compared with a policy of avoiding their use, early anticoagulation would be associated with: • reduced risk of death or dependence in activities of daily living a few months after stroke onset; • reduced risk of early recurrent ischaemic stroke; • increased risk of symptomatic intracranial and extracranial haemorrhage; and • reduced risk of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.

Search methods: We searched the Cochrane Stroke Group Trials Register (August 2021); the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR); the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL; 2021, Issue 7), in the Cochrane Library (searched 5 August 2021); MEDLINE (2014 to 5 August 2021); and Embase (2014 to 5 August 2021). In addition, we searched ongoing trials registries and reference lists of relevant papers. For previous versions of this review, we searched the register of the Antithrombotic Trialists' (ATT) Collaboration, consulted MedStrategy (1995), and contacted relevant drug companies.

Selection criteria: Randomised trials comparing early anticoagulant therapy (started within two weeks of stroke onset) with control in people with acute presumed or confirmed ischaemic stroke.

Data collection and analysis: Two review authors independently selected trials for inclusion, assessed trial quality, and extracted data. We assessed the overall certainty of the evidence for each outcome using RoB1 and GRADE methods.

Main results: We included 28 trials involving 24,025 participants. Quality of the trials varied considerably. We considered some studies to be at unclear or high risk of selection, performance, detection, attrition, or reporting bias. Anticoagulants tested were standard unfractionated heparin, low-molecular-weight heparins, heparinoids, oral anticoagulants, and thrombin inhibitors. Over 90% of the evidence is related to effects of anticoagulant therapy initiated within the first 48 hours of onset. No evidence suggests that early anticoagulation reduced the odds of death or dependence at the end of follow-up (odds ratio (OR) 0.98, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.92 to 1.03; 12 RCTs, 22,428 participants; high-certainty evidence). Similarly, we found no evidence suggesting that anticoagulant therapy started within the first 14 days of stroke onset reduced the odds of death from all causes (OR 0.99, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.09; 22 RCTs, 22,602 participants; low-certainty evidence) during the treatment period. Although early anticoagulant therapy was associated with fewer recurrent ischaemic strokes (OR 0.75, 95% CI 0.65 to 0.88; 12 RCTs, 21,665 participants; moderate-certainty evidence), it was also associated with an increase in symptomatic intracranial haemorrhage (OR 2.47; 95% CI 1.90 to 3.21; 20 RCTs, 23,221 participants; moderate-certainty evidence). Similarly, early anticoagulation reduced the frequency of symptomatic pulmonary emboli (OR 0.60, 95% CI 0.44 to 0.81; 14 RCTs, 22,544 participants; high-certainty evidence), but this benefit was offset by an increase in extracranial haemorrhage (OR 2.99, 95% CI 2.24 to 3.99; 18 RCTs, 22,255 participants; moderate-certainty evidence).

Authors' conclusions: Since the last version of this review, four new relevant studies have been published, and conclusions remain consistent. People who have early anticoagulant therapy after acute ischaemic stroke do not demonstrate any net short- or long-term benefit. Treatment with anticoagulants reduced recurrent stroke, deep vein thrombosis, and pulmonary embolism but increased bleeding risk. Data do not support the routine use of any of the currently available anticoagulants for acute ischaemic stroke.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Anticoagulants / adverse effects
  • Brain Ischemia* / drug therapy
  • Heparin / adverse effects
  • Humans
  • Ischemic Stroke*
  • Stroke* / drug therapy
  • Stroke* / prevention & control
  • Systematic Reviews as Topic


  • Anticoagulants
  • Heparin