2. Which is the best study to evaluate for a cardiac embolic source in this patient?
- Transthoracic echocardiography (TTE)
- Transesophageal echocardiography (TEE)
- Transcranial Doppler ultrasonography
The study of choice in this patient is TEE. Overall, TEE is better than TTE in identifying a cardiac source of embolism,18,19 mainly because the images are obtained from a probe in the esophagus, which is in close proximity to the heart, so that there is little additional soft tissue and bone between the probe and cardiac structures. In addition, higher-frequency probes can be used. Both of these result in ultrasonographic images with much greater spatial resolution than can be obtained with a transthoracic study.15
In a case series,20 TEE identified a potential cardiac source of embolism in 45 (57%) of 79 patients with cryptogenic stroke, compared with only 12 (15%) with TTE.
The main limitation of TEE is that it does not show the left ventricular apex very well, making an accurate assessment of left ventricular function or identification of a left ventricular apical thrombus much less likely.
In patients who lack evidence of atherosclerotic cerebrovascular disease, specific findings on history or physical examination could increase the chances of identifying an embolic source, such as left ventricular thrombus, on TTE. These findings could include a history of a myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, left ventricular dysfunction, endocarditis, rheumatic heart disease, a prosthetic valve, or atrial fibrillation or flutter. TTE by itself is considered sufficient for making the diagnosis of mitral stenosis, left ventricular aneurysm, dilated cardiomyopathy, left ventricular thrombus, and mitral valve prolapse with myxomatous degeneration of the leaflets.
However, in patients without signs or symptoms of cardiac disease, the diagnostic value of TTE is significantly less. Several studies have demonstrated that in patients without evidence of cardiac disease, TTE identifies the source of embolism less than 10% of the time.21 Some series even suggest that the yield may be less than 1%.22 TEE has the advantage of being able to diagnose the above disorders and of having a higher sensitivity for identifying potential sources that may be missed by TTE, such as left atrial or left atrial appendage thrombus, aortic arch atheroma, patent foramen ovale, atrial septal aneurysm, or spontaneous echo contrast. It should be remembered, however, that TEE is a semi-invasive procedure that carries the risks of both the procedure and the sedation, eg, bronchospasm, hypoxia, arrhythmias, upper gastrointestinal trauma, and bleeding.23
Further clouding the decision are recent advances in TTE technology, such as contrast TTE with second harmonic imaging, which enhances the ability of TTE to identify potential sources of stroke such as patent foramen ovale nearly to the level of TEE.24
Unfortunately, guidelines from professional societies do not offer assistance on the best diagnostic approach. Current guidelines from the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and American Society of Echocardiography do give echocardiography a class I indication in younger patients (< 45 years old) with cerebrovascular events or older patients (> 45 years old) with stroke without evidence of cerebrovascular disease or other obvious causes. However, there is no official recommendation on whether to choose TTE, TEE, or both studies.16 Given the multiple causes of cardioembolism and the variety of clinical factors that could influence the decision to choose a certain echo study, this decision is appropriately left to the individual physician.
A reasonable, evidence-based diagnostic approach in young stroke patients is to proceed to TEE when routine TTE and electrocardiography are unrevealing.25 In reality, this is the practice followed in most centers, including ours. Although TTE has a lower diagnostic yield in patients without symptoms, it has the advantages of being readily available in most centers, being noninvasive, and providing complementary information to TEE even when TTE does not reveal a potential cause of stroke.
As for the other studies:
Electrocardiography is valuable in identifying potential cardioembolic causes of stroke such as atrial fibrillation, left ventricular aneurysm, or myocardial infarction, but it is insufficient by itself to assess for many other potential sources of cardioembolism.
Transcranial Doppler ultrasonography is very sensitive for detecting patent foramen ovale and other right-to-left shunts that could be sources of cardioembolism. In this test, microbubbles from agitated saline are injected into the venous circulation and are detected in the cerebral arteries after passing through the shunt. It has no utility in identifying the other possibilities discussed above, nor can it discriminate whether these shunts are intra-cardiac or extracardiac.
The patient undergoes TTE, which shows normal left ventricular size, wall thickness, and systolic function. His right ventricular function is normal, as are his left and right atrial size. Valvular function is normal, and no right-to-left interatrial shunt is detected with the use of agitated saline contrast.