Learn all about stroke, from risk factors and warning signs to the importance of preventive measures and immediate treatment
Stroke is a disease that occurs when the brain’s blood supply is interrupted. This can happen as a result of factors such as blood clot or a hemorrhage. There are two types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke occurs when the blockage of a blood vessel stops blood supply to the brain. This prevents the brain from receiving the oxygen and nutrients it needs. A hemorrhagic stroke happens when bleeding from a ruptured blood vessel in the brain causes pressure buildup, harming or killing brain tissue. Both types can cause permanent brain damage and require immediate emergency medical care to improve recovery. Learn the risk factors and how to recognize warning signs.
Stroke Risk Factors
Every year in the US, more than 800,000 people experience a new or recurrent stroke and at least 140,000 people die from the disease. This makes it the leading cause of permanent disability in adults. It also highlights the need for taking preventative measures for those at risk.
Some risk factors are treatable or controllable with medication or behavioral changes. These include high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, diabetes, carotid or other artery disease, irregular heartbeat, high cholesterol, unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and obesity.
However, some risk factors cannot be changed. For instance, people who already had a stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), or heart attack are at higher risk. The risk also increases if another member of the immediate family such as a grandparent, parent, or sibling has had a stroke.
Age, sex, and race can also affect risk. Risk increases with age, approximately doubling for each decade of life after age 55. In terms of gender, stroke typically affects more women than men. In particular, the use of birth control pills and pregnancy potentially increases women’s risk. Additionally, African Americans and Hispanic Americans are more likely than white Americans to experience a first stroke due to increased risks for high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Because prompt emergency medical treatment is essential to minimizing brain damage, it’s important to recognize the warning signs and act immediately for patients to access the treatment they need. A stroke can result in paralysis or weakness, cognitive problems, emotional control problems, and depression, but prompt treatment can improve recovery. Dr. James Grotta explained the importance of seeking help as soon as possible after recognizing stroke signs. He provided the following acronym to help individuals identify signs in themselves, their loved ones, or anyone close by.
Balance – Sudden dizziness or loss of balance and coordination
Eyes – Difficulty seeing
Face – One side of their face is drooping
Arm – Can’t lift their arm or are experiencing weakness or numbness in the arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
Speech – They have slurred speech or are unable to talk
Time – React right away and call 911
Other symptoms and warning signs include confusion, dizziness or vertigo, severe headache, or trouble speaking, seeing, or walking.
Stroke can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms can mimic those of other conditions. However, prompt diagnosis is important as many treatments must be administered within hours of symptom onset to reduce lasting damage. CT scans are often effective in diagnosing hemorrhagic strokes. Current research is underway to identify panels of blood proteins, or biomarkers, that indicate an ischemic stroke. There are hopes that a subsequent blood test could be used for future diagnosis.
Treatment Options for Stroke
There are three treatment stages for stroke: prevention, therapy during an acute attack and post-stroke rehabilitation.
The best treatment is prevention, including treating underlying risk factors. Two main ways to prevent stroke are through medication and lifestyle changes like starting a healthier diet and exercise routine. If you’re using a blood pressure or anticoagulant medication, it’s important to take it consistently and not to let your prescriptions lapse.
Therapy during an acute attack involves dissolving the blood clot in the case of an ischemic stroke or controlling the bleeding during a hemorrhagic stroke. Catheter- or IV-based treatments or minimally invasive surgeries may also aid in recovery.
Recovery often depends on how quickly patients receive treatment and how much brain damage occurred. Post-stroke rehabilitation may include physical therapy, range-of-motion and stretching exercises, therapy to relearn skills like walking and eating, an exercise regimen, and counseling to treat psychological effects. Experts believe early intensive rehabilitation boosts a patient’s chances of restoring function. Through the process of neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to rewire functions from damaged parts of the brain to healthy areas—patients can build new pathways in the brain and improve their recovery.
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