Stroke

Overview

A stroke is a serious condition that occurs when blood supply to the brain is blocked or reduced, depriving the brain of oxygen and causing brain cells to die. Strokes are often deadly and require immediate medical attention. The majority of strokes are ischemic, or caused by a blocked artery to the brain, although damaged blood vessels in the brain can also cause a stroke (hemorrhagic). The main risk factors for stroke are related to lifestyle, such as high blood pressure, smoking, and high cholesterol. There are ways to reduce the risk of stroke, and when treatment is received quickly after onset, many people having a stroke survive.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

The symptoms of stroke affect speech, behavior, and movement. Signs of a stroke commonly include numbness or slackness in the face, arm, or legs, confusion or trouble speaking, vision problems, dizziness, loss of balance, and severe headache. All of these signs appear suddenly. A telltale sign of stroke is drooping on one side of the face or paralysis on one side of the body. Sometimes symptoms will appear and then go away – this is called a mini-stroke, or a transient ischemic attack. Even people whose symptoms do not last long should get immediate medical attention.

Strokes can cause temporary disabilities, permanent disabilities, or death, depending on how quickly treatment is sought. Some people may be permanently paralyzed, have difficulty talking or swallowing, or feel pain and discomfort. A common complication of stroke is slurred speech. Some people who have suffered a stroke may also develop memory or thinking problems, as well as emotional issues. Behavior changes are common after someone experiences a stroke; many people become more impulsive, withdrawn, or have trouble with everyday activities.

When someone is taken to the hospital for showing signs of a stroke, doctors must determine the type of stroke and exclude other conditions that can cause similar symptoms. Family members may be interviewed to talk about the patient’s risk factors, current medications, and symptoms. A physical exam will also be done to check blood pressure, listen to the heart, and check the eyes. Blood tests will determine how fast the blood can clot, blood sugar levels, and whether there is an infection. Imagining tests can be used to view the brain and arteries. A cerebral angiogram may also be done by dyeing the blood vessels so they can be seen under an X-ray. An echocardiogram can use sound waves to produce an image of the heart, which may reveal a clot.

Causes

There are two primary types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are caused by blocked arteries to the brain. Arteries can become blocked by a clot, reducing blood flow to the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes are caused by ruptured or leaking blood vessels in the brain. This may be the result of high blood pressure or weak blood vessel walls (aneurysms). Blood vessels can burst in the tissue surrounding the brain (intracerebral hemorrhage) or an artery can burst on or close to the surface of the brain (subarachnoid hemorrhage). Ischemic strokes may also be transient, called a mini-stroke, and are caused by temporary blockages in the brain. Although the symptoms of a mini-stroke may go away within 5 minutes, they indicate a more serious problem.

Although anyone can have a stroke, there are certain risk factors that increase the chances in some people. High blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes can all greatly increase the risk of stroke. Being overweight or obese often increases the chances of having these conditions, and thus stroke. Smokers are at higher risk of having a stroke due to the carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke, which decreases the oxygen in blood. People with sickle cell disease are also more prone to strokes. Strokes are more common in older people and blacks, Hispanics, and American Indian/Alaskan Natives. Additionally, stroke may run in families. Continue reading for Prevention and Treatment Information . . .

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