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Stroke

What is a stroke?

A stroke happens when there is a loss of blood flow to part of the brain. Your brain cells cannot get the oxygen and nutrients they need from blood, and they start to die within a few minutes. This can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability, or even death.

If you think that you or someone else is having a stroke, call 911 right away. Immediate treatment may save someone's life and increase the chances for successful rehabilitation and recovery.

What are the types of stroke?

There are two types of stroke:

  • Ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot that blocks or plugs a blood vessel in the brain. This is the most common type; about 80% of strokes are ischemic.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a blood vessel that breaks and bleeds into the brain

Another condition that's similar to a stroke is a transient ischemic attack (TIA). It's sometimes called a "mini-stroke." TIAs happen when the blood supply to the brain is blocked for a short time. The damage to the brain cells isn't permanent, but if you have had a TIA, you are at a much higher risk of having a stroke.

Who is at risk for a stroke?

Certain factors can raise your risk of a stroke. The major risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure. This is the primary risk factor for a stroke.
  • Diabetes.
  • Heart diseases.Atrial fibrillation and other heart diseases can cause blood clots that lead to stroke.
  • Smoking. When you smoke, you damage your blood vessels and raise your blood pressure.
  • A personal or family history of stroke or TIA.
  • Age. Your risk of stroke increases as you get older.
  • Race and ethnicity. African Americans have a higher risk of stroke.

There are also other factors that are linked to a higher risk of stroke, such as:

  • Alcohol and illegal drug use
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • High cholesterol
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Having obesity
What are the symptoms of stroke?

The symptoms of stroke often happen quickly. They include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body)
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

If you think that you or someone else is having a stroke, call 911 right away.

How are strokes diagnosed?

To make a diagnosis, your health care provider will:

  • Ask about your symptoms and medical history
  • Do a physical exam, including a check of
    • Your mental alertness
    • Your coordination and balance
    • Any numbness or weakness in your face, arms, and legs
    • Any trouble speaking and seeing clearly
  • Run some tests, which may include
    • Diagnostic imaging of the brain, such as a CT scan or MRI
    • Heart tests, which can help detect heart problems or blood clots that may have led to a stroke. Possible tests include an electrocardiogram (EKG) and an echocardiography.
What are the treatments for stroke?

Treatments for stroke include medicines, surgery, and rehabilitation. Which treatments you get depend on the type of stroke and the stage of treatment. The different stages are:

  • Acute treatment, to try to stop a stroke while it is happening
  • Post-stroke rehabilitation, to overcome the disabilities caused by the stroke
  • Prevention, to prevent a first stroke or, if you have already had one, prevent another stroke

Acute treatments for ischemic stroke are usually medicines:

  • You may get tPA, (tissue plasminogen activator), a medicine to dissolve the blood clot. You can only get this medicine within 4 hours of when your symptoms started. The sooner you can get it, the better your chance of recovery.
  • If you cannot get that medicine, you may get medicine that helps stop platelets from clumping together to form blood clots. Or you may get a blood thinner to keep existing clots from getting bigger.
  • If you have carotid artery disease, you may also need a procedure to open your blocked carotid artery

Acute treatments for hemorrhagic stroke focus on stopping the bleeding. The first step is to find the cause of bleeding in the brain. The next step is to control it:

  • If high blood pressure is the cause of bleeding, you may be given blood pressure medicines.
  • If an aneurysm if the cause, you may need aneurysm clipping or coil embolization. These are surgeries to prevent further leaking of blood from the aneurysm. It also can help prevent the aneurysm from bursting again.
  • If an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) is the cause of a stroke, you may need an AVM repair. An AVM is a tangle of faulty arteries and veins that can rupture within the brain. An AVM repair may be done through
    • Surgery
    • Injecting a substance into the blood vessels of the AVM to block blood flow
    • Radiation to shrink the blood vessels of the AVM

Stroke rehabilitation can help you relearn skills you lost because of the damage. The goal is to help you become as independent as possible and to have the best possible quality of life.

Prevention of another stroke is also important, since having a stroke increases the risk of getting another one. Prevention may include heart-healthy lifestyle changes and medicines.

Can strokes be prevented?

If you have already had a stroke or are at risk of having a stroke, you can make some heart-healthy lifestyle changes to try to prevent a future stroke:

  • Eating a heart-healthy diet
  • Aiming for a healthy weight
  • Managing stress
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Quitting smoking
  • Managing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels

If these changes aren't enough, you may need medicine to control your risk factors.

NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Ischemic Stroke

A stroke is a medical emergency. There are two types - ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic stroke is the more common type. It is usually caused by a blood clot that blocks or plugs a blood vessel in the brain. This keeps blood from flowing to the brain. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die. Another cause is stenosis, or narrowing of the artery. This can happen because of atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up inside your arteries. Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) occur when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted briefly. Having a TIA can mean you are at risk for having a more serious stroke.

Symptoms of stroke are:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg (especially on one side of the body)
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

It is important to treat strokes as quickly as possible. Blood thinners may be used to stop a stroke while it is happening by quickly dissolving the blood clot. Post-stroke rehabilitation can help people overcome disabilities caused by stroke damage.

NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Hemorrhagic Stroke

A stroke is a medical emergency. There are two types - ischemic and hemorrhagic. Hemorrhagic stroke is the less common type. It happens when a blood vessel breaks and bleeds into the brain. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die. Causes include a bleeding aneurysm, an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), or an artery wall that breaks open.

Symptoms of stroke are:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg (especially on one side of the body)
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

It is important to treat strokes as quickly as possible. With a hemorrhagic stroke, the first steps are to find the cause of bleeding in the brain and then control it. Surgery may be needed. Post-stroke rehabilitation can help people overcome disabilities caused by stroke damage.

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Stroke Rehabilitation

A stroke can cause lasting brain damage. People who survive a stroke need to relearn skills they lost because of the damage. Rehabilitation can help them relearn those skills.

The effects of a stroke depend on which area of the brain was damaged. The types of disabilities a stroke can cause include:

  • Paralysis or problems controlling movement
  • Pain and other problems with the senses
  • Problems using or understanding language
  • Problems with thinking and memory
  • Emotional disturbances

Stroke rehabilitation involves many kinds of health professionals. The goal is to help stroke survivors become as independent as possible and to have the best possible quality of life.

NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Transient Ischemic Attack

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a stroke that lasts only a few minutes. It happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is briefly blocked. Symptoms of a TIA are like other stroke symptoms, but do not last as long. They happen suddenly, and include:

  • Numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body
  • Confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Difficulty walking
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of balance or coordination

Most symptoms of a TIA disappear within an hour, although they may last for up to 24 hours. Because you cannot tell if these symptoms are from a TIA or a stroke, you should go to the hospital right away.

TIAs are often a warning sign for future strokes. Taking medicine, such as blood thinners, may reduce your risk of a stroke. Your doctor might also recommend surgery. You can also help lower your risk by having a healthy lifestyle. This includes not smoking, not drinking too much, eating a healthy diet, and exercising. It is also important to control other health problems, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

NIH: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

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