Updated: 2019, Jul 30

What is a Stroke – Warning Signs, Tests, and Treatment

Read in-depth stroke information including symptoms, treatments, and prevention.
Stroke
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of your brain is interrupted. Shutterstock Images

Stroke Overview

A stroke happens when a blood vessel in the brain is either blocked or has ruptured.

This cuts blood and oxygen supply to the brain so it begins to die.

Then, the part of the body that is controlled by the damaged area of the brain won’t function properly.

In just a few minutes, brain damage can occur which is the reason it is very important to know the symptoms of a stroke and act quickly.

Fast treatment helps minimize damage to the brain and improves the chance of having a full recovery.

Stroke Signs and Symptoms

  • Sudden weakness, tingling sensation, numbness or loss of movement in the arm, leg, face and usually one side of the body.
  • Acute vision changes.
  • Suddenly finding it difficult to speak or slurring.
  • Confusion or difficulty understanding even simple statements.
  • Sudden balancing problems like difficulty in walking.
  • A sharp, sudden and severe headache that is different from the headaches you had experienced in the past.

Stroke Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and Risk Factors

Stress can also raise blood pressure to cause a stroke. Latimes Images

A stroke is a direct result of interrupted or decreased blood supply to the brain.

The brain cells begin to die due to lack of oxygen and nutrients.

It can either be called an ischemic stroke which is caused by a blocked artery or a hemorrhagic stroke which is caused by a leaking or bursting of a blood vessel.

In some cases, the disruption of blood flow to the brain is only temporary which is called a transient ischemic attack.

Here are the controllable risk factors a stroke:

  • High blood pressure or hypertension – This is the top risk factor for stroke since the arteries get weaker over time. It is defined as having a blood pressure reading of 140/90 or greater[1].
  • Atherosclerosis – It is a major risk factor for stroke wherein fatty plaques build up on the inside of artery walls narrowing or blocking vessels.
  • Heart Disease – Having any heart disease like an enlarged heart and coronary heart disease increases the risk stroke.
  • High cholesterol – It contributes to a build-up of plaque in the arteries which can reduce or block blood flow and eventually cause strokes.
  • Smoking or Tobacco Use – It lowers blood oxygen levels, so the heart needs to work harder resulting in blood clots forming more readily. Smokers have two times the risk of stroke according to the National Stroke Association.
  • Atrial fibrillation – This is a disorder characterized by an irregular heartbeat. It makes someone about five times more likely to have a stroke according to the National Stroke Association.
  • Diabetes – People with this condition usually suffer from other health problems that are stroke risk factors like hypertension, heart disease and high cholesterol.
  • Being Overweight or Obese – Carrying extra weight combined with a sedentary lifestyle increases the chance of hypertension or diabetes.
  • Excessive Alcohol Consumption – Several researchers have found that a high alcohol intake increases stroke risk.
  • Certain medications – Birth control pills/patches and anticoagulants can increase stroke risk.

Stroke Types

  • Ischemic Stroke – This is the most common type of stroke occurring in about 85% of cases[2]. It happens due to the narrowing or blockage of arteries in the brain and severely decreased blood flow (ischemia). It can be a thrombotic stroke wherein a blood clot (thrombus) forms in an artery that supplies blood to the brain. It can also be an embolic stroke wherein a blood clot or any debris forms away from the brain (it usually occurs in the heart). It moves through the bloodstream to lodge in a narrow artery in the brain.
  • Hemorrhagic Stroke – This occurs when a blood vessel in the brain leaks or bursts causing a brain hemorrhage[3]. It is called an intracerebral hemorrhage when a blood vessel located in the brain bursts, causing spilling in the surrounding brain tissue which damages brain cells. It is called a subarachnoid hemorrhage when an artery on or around the surface of the brain bursts and spills into the area between the skull and the surface of the brain.
  • Transient Ischemic Attack – commonly called a mini-stroke, which occurs only in a brief period having symptoms similar to a stroke[4]. It usually lasts less than five minutes and is caused by a clot or debris blocks blood flow to an area of the brain.

Tests and Diagnosis

After a stroke, the first test is usually a CT scan which can locate the bleeding in the brain.

It will also show what kind of stroke occurred[5].

In some cases, an MRI is also ordered by the doctor.

For ischemic stroke, there are other initial tests recommended like ECG, blood tests, electrolytes, liver function, kidney function and prothrombin time.

Stroke Treatments and Medications

The treatment for stroke depends on the specific type, its location and how much brain damage has occurred.

Thrombolysis is a common treatment which dissolves dangerous clots in blood vessels.

It also improves blood flow and prevents further damage to organs and tissues.

The treatment also focuses on preventing another stroke from occurring.

Precaution and Self Care

The patient is advised to use a cane or walker, which will prevent falls.

The help of an occupational therapist may be needed as well.

After a stroke, there are patients that have vision problems which will need to be managed properly.

Remember to focus on the affected side during rehabilitation.

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