What is a stroke?
A stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain is blocked or bursts. Without blood and the oxygen it carries, part of the brain starts to die. The part of the body controlled by the damaged area of the brain can’t work properly.
Brain damage can begin within minutes. That’s why it’s so important to know the symptoms of stroke and to act fast. Quick treatment can help limit damage to the brain and increase the chance of a full recovery.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a stroke happen quickly. A stroke may cause:
- Sudden numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
- Sudden vision changes.
- Sudden trouble speaking.
- Sudden confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
- Sudden problems with walking or balance.
- A sudden, severe headache that is different from past headaches.
If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 or other emergency services right away.
See your doctor if you have symptoms that seem like a stroke, even if they go away quickly. You may have had a transient ischemic attack (TIA), sometimes called a mini-stroke. A TIA is a warning that a stroke may happen soon. Getting early treatment for a TIA can help prevent a stroke.
What causes a stroke?
There are two types of stroke:
- An ischemic (say “iss-KEE-mick”) stroke happens when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel in the brain. The clot may form in the blood vessel or travel from somewhere else in the blood system. About 8 out of 10 strokes are ischemic strokes. They are the most common type of stroke in older adults.
- A hemorrhagic (say “heh-muh-RAW-jick”) stroke develops when an artery in the brain leaks or bursts. This causes bleeding inside the brain or near the surface of the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes are less common but more deadly than ischemic strokes.
How is a stroke diagnosed?
You need to see a doctor right away. If a stroke is diagnosed quickly—right after symptoms start—doctors may be able to use medicines that can help you recover better.
The first thing the doctor needs to find out is what kind of stroke it is: ischemic or hemorrhagic. This is important, because the medicine given to treat a stroke caused by a blood clot could be deadly if used for a stroke caused by bleeding in the brain.
To find out what kind of stroke it is, the doctor will do a type of X-ray called a CT scan of the brain, which can show if there is bleeding. The doctor may order other tests to find the location of the clot or bleeding, check for the amount of brain damage, and check for other conditions that can cause symptoms similar to a stroke.
How is it treated?
For an ischemic stroke, treatment focuses on restoring blood flow to the brain. If you get to the hospital right away after symptoms begin, doctors may use a medicine that dissolves blood clots. Research shows that this medicine can improve recovery from a stroke, especially if given within 90 minutes of the first symptoms.1 Other medicines may be given to prevent blood clots and control symptoms.
A hemorrhagic stroke can be hard to treat. Doctors may do surgery or other treatments to stop bleeding or reduce pressure on the brain. Medicines may be used to control blood pressure, brain swelling, and other problems.
After either kind of stroke and after your condition is stable, treatment shifts to preventing other problems and future strokes. You may need to take a number of medicines to control conditions that put you at risk for stroke, such as high blood pressure or atrial fibrillation. Some people need to have a surgery to remove plaque buildup from the blood vessels that supply the brain (carotid arteries).
The best way to get better after a stroke is to start stroke rehabilitation (rehab). The goal of stroke rehab is to help you regain skills you lost or to make the most of your remaining abilities. Stroke rehab can also help you take steps to prevent future strokes. You have the greatest chance of regaining abilities during the first few months after a stroke. So it is important to start rehab soon after a stroke and do a little every day.
How can you prevent another stroke?
After you have had a stroke, you are at risk for having another one. But you can make some important lifestyle changes that can reduce your risk of stroke and improve your overall health.
Treat any health problems you have
- Manage high blood pressure or high cholesterol by working with your doctor.
- Manage diabetes. Keep your blood sugar levels within a target range.
- If your doctor recommends taking aspirin or a blood thinner, take it.
- Take your medicine exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
- Get the flu vaccine every year.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle
- Don’t smoke or allow others to smoke around you.
- Limit alcohol to 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.
- Stay at a healthy weight. Being overweight makes it more likely you will develop high blood pressure, heart problems, and diabetes. These conditions make a stroke more likely.
- Do activities that raise your heart rate. Get at least 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week. Walking is a good choice. You also may want to do other activities, such as running, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis or team sports.
- Eat heart-healthy foods. These include fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and foods that are low in sodium, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about stroke:
- What is a stroke?
- What causes it?
- Can I prevent it?
- What are the symptoms?
- What happens during and after a stroke?
- What increases my risk for stroke?
- Are there different types of stroke?
- Who is affected by stroke?
- How is a stroke treated?
- What medicines are used?
- Will I need surgery?
- Should I have a carotid endarterectomy?
- What are the chances that I’ll have another stroke?
- What complications can develop?
- Should I put my loved one who has had a stroke into long-term care?
Living with stroke:
- What kind of help will I need after a stroke?
- What lifestyle changes will I need to make after a stroke?
- How can I eat a heart-healthy diet?
- Which heart-healthy diet should I use?
Current as of: February 12, 2015
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review: E. Gregory Thompson, MD – Internal Medicine & Karin M. Lindholm, DO – Neurology
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