A stroke is a "brain attack" that doctors name "cerebro" (brain) "vascular" (blood vessel) "accident" (CVA). It occurs either because a blood vessel supplying a portion of the brain bursts causing bleeding within the brain (hemorrhage) or becomes blocked starving a portion of the brain of oxygen. Blood vessels can become blocked by sediment building up in them ("sediment" collects to form a plaque mostly made up of cholesterol that causes a blood clot or "thrombus" to form) stopping flow, or by debris (usually made up of a clot of red blood cells and platelets) that is an unwelcome visitor to the brain from elsewhere (called an embolus, usually from the arteries of the neck, upper chest, or the heart). It is quite important for the doctor to find out which of these problems is at work, because the treatment may be different although one stroke may look the same as another to the family or patient.
A stroke can be recognized quickly if any of these symptoms occur suddenly, even if the symptom goes away after a few seconds or minutes:
- Loss of vision in either one or both eyes, double vision
- Loss of ability to move an arm or leg
- Change in the ability to move the muscles of the face
- Loss of balance, inability to stand up
- Inability to speak, make yourself understood, or understand speech
- Loss of consciousness right after "the worst headache of my life"
Strokes usually occur in people who:
- Are over 40 years of age
- Have high blood pressure (worse risk if untreated)
- Have high cholesterol (worse risk if untreated)
- Have a family history of stroke or aneurysm
- Have had a prior stroke, blood clot, or "blood thinner" (warfarin) use
- Have a long history of birth control pill use (especially with cigarettes)
- Have diabetes
- Users of "recreational drugs"
- Have heart disease (valvular, coronary or cardiomyopathy)
- Have a heart arrhythmia
- Are significantly overweight or don't exercise`
The more of the above risk factors you have, the more likely you are at risk for one of these unfortunate events. Strokes however can occur in young people without risk factors, most often around the time of childbirth.
What to do if you think that you or someone near you is having a stroke:
- Speed of treatment may make all the difference in how much brain function is lost
- Call 911: you get help from experienced people and immediate transport to the nearest emergency room
- Do not permit the patient to drive to the doctor, home or to the hospital
- If the victim is diabetic and can swallow: give any sugar solution (juice, Coke or Pepsi will do but not the diet kind)
- If the patient is conscious: a dose of aspirin is worthwhile (not aspirin substitute like Tylenol or Advil)
- If the patient has a seizure: protect the patient from injury with the use of pillows, or anything soft
Once the patient gets to the hospital, even if the symptoms seem to improve (a clot can sometimes slide further through the vessel, or break up), or worsen (the brain swells when it is injured making things look far worse, the swelling can be reduced over the ensuing days), the medical team will look for a cause, and if it is early enough (within 3 hours), may even be able to use one of the "clot busting" medicines to preserve brain function. What we do in the first three hours may make a difference between death, life with major, minor or no disability.
Related Information About Strokes:
Learn more about stroke risk factors and symptoms.
Learn more about surviving and recovering from stroke by reading Blogs from our site expert Deanne Stein.
Learn more about different forms of high blood pressure.
Published On: October 17, 2007