What You Need To Know About a Stroke


Your brain requires a constant supply of blood to function. When the flow of blood is blocked or reduced, brain cells do not get the oxygen and nutrients that they need. Within minutes, they start to die.

A stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency. Strokes can also jeopardize mental and bodily functions including speech, muscle control, perception, and even consciousness. Accessing treatment as quickly as possible is crucial in minimizing the effects of a stroke. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, strokes cause 130,000 deaths in Americans every year, accounting for 0.05% of all deaths. The good news is that stroke treatments and prevention efforts have improved significantly in the past two decades,  greatly reducing the percentage of stroke deaths.   

What Happens During a Stroke?

There are two types of strokes:

  • Ischemic. About 85% of all strokes occur when the flow of blood to the brain is reduced or cut off by a blood clot in the arteries. Blood clots may form in the one of the arteries responsible for supplying blood to the brain (thrombotic). They may also form elsewhere in the body—often in the heart—and travel through the bloodstream to become stuck in the narrower arteries of the brain (embolic). In both cases, they end up disrupting the supply of blood to the brain. 
  • Hemorrhagic. The second type of stroke occurs when blood vessels rupture or leak, causing bleeding in the brain. A number of conditions may contribute to a brain hemorrhage, including weak spots in the walls of the brain’s blood vessels (aneurysms), overuse of drugs that prevent blood clots, and unmonitored high blood pressure. Hemorrhagic strokes result in death more often than ischemic strokes.

Ministrokes

A transient ischemic attack (TIA), sometimes called a ministroke, is a short period when you experience the symptoms of a stroke. Often lasting less than five minutes, TIAs decrease the supply of blood to your brain. However, in contrast to a full-blown stroke, the blockage is only temporary. You should seek emergency care even if symptoms disappear, as having a TIA means that there’s a chance that you have a blocked or narrowed artery leading towards the brain. It puts you at an increased risk of going on to have a stroke which could cause lasting damage.

Symptoms

Knowing the symptoms of a stroke can help you to identify if you or someone you know may be having a stroke. If possible, take note of when symptoms begin, as this can help to inform treatment decisions.

Some of the most common symptoms of stroke include:

  • Sudden numbness, weakness, or paralysis in the face or one or more of the limbs
  • Sudden difficulties with coordination, sensation, speech, vision, or the ability to understand others’ speech
  • Dimness of vision, usually in one eye
  • Loss of balance, occasionally with nausea or vomiting, fever, hiccups, or difficulty swallowing
  • Sudden and severe headache, followed by a loss of consciousness—this can indicate a hemorrhagic stroke
  • Brief and temporary loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty walking, including dizziness or falling

If you or someone you are with exhibits any of the symptoms above, do not hesitate to call emergency services, even if symptoms disappear within a few minutes. Never wait to see if symptoms will go away on their own. Treatments should be started within a few hours of the onset of symptoms. Early treatment is crucial in preventing a fatal or disabling stroke in the future.

The “FAST” Test

  • FACE. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of his or her face droop? 
  • ARMS. Ask the person to raise their arms. Is he or she able to? Does one arm appear to be drifting downward?
  • SPEECH. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Is his or her speech slurred or unintelligible?  
  • TIME. If you notice any of the above signs, you should call 911 right away.

Who is at Risk of Having a Stroke?

Anyone can have a stroke at any age, though your chances of having a stroke increase according to a wide variety of factors. Some factors, such as medical conditions and lifestyle factors, can be changed. Others, such as your age, sex, and family history, cannot.

Medical conditions:

  • Having a previous stroke or transient ischemic attack
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart diseases and disorders, including coronary artery disease, heart valve defects, and enlarged heart chambers                                                                                                                               
  • Diabetes
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Obstructive sleep apnea

Lifestyle factors:

  • An unhealthy diet
  • Physical inactivity
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Consuming too much alcohol
  • Use of drugs 
  • Tobacco use or exposure to secondhand smoke

Other factors:

  • Family history. Having a family history of stroke, heart attack, or transient ischemic attack increases your risk of suffering a stroke.
  • Age. People over the age of 55 are most likely to have strokes.
  • Ethnicity. African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Alaska Natives are at increased risk of stroke compared to non-Hispanic whites and Asians.
  • Sex. Strokes are more common for men, but women are more likely to die from stroke than men are. Pregnancy and the use of oral contraceptives present unique stroke risks for women.

Emergency Treatment

Emergency medical treatment for stroke depends on the type of stroke.

Ischemic Strokes

Ischemic strokes may be treated with medication that breaks down blood clots, restoring the flow of blood to your brain. Medication may be administered intravenously, but in some cases, it is inserted directly into the brain through a catheter. Doctors may also break up the clot manually, using a small device inserted through a catheter.

After a stroke, your doctor may recommend another procedure to help avoid a future stroke. Procedures may include surgically removing plaque from the arteries, or getting an angioplasty and stents to expand narrowed arteries.

Hemorrhagic Strokes

Emergency medical treatment for hemorrhagic stroke is aimed towards controlling bleeding and reducing pressure in your brain. If you take blood thinners, you may be given medication or blood transfusions to work against the thinners. You may also be given drugs or undergo surgery to relieve the pressure on your brain caused by excess blood, reduce your blood pressure, prevent seizures, and prevent the constriction of the blood vessels.

After the bleeding stops, you may undergo surgery to repair damaged blood vessels. Surgeries can include surgical clipping, coiling, intracranial bypass, surgical removal of arteriovenous malformations (AVMs), and stereotactic radiosurgery.

Disclaimer: Information on this website is not meant to encourage the self-management of any health or wellness issue. Nor is it meant to encourage any one type of medical treatment. Any treatment or advice used may have varying results between individuals. Readers with health-related questions, are always encouraged to seek proper consultation with a physician or certified healthcare provider. No information on this website should be used to ignore any medical or health-related advice, nor should it be the root cause for a delay in a consultation with a physician or a certified healthcare provider.

No information on this website should be used to start the use of dietary supplements and vitamins, natural and herbal products, homeopathic medicine and other mentioned products prior to a consultation with a physician or certified healthcare provider.