A stroke is a medical event that occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted. In most cases, this occurs as a result of a blood clot or plaque, which can block vital blood vessels. This blockage or rupture deprives the brain of oxygen, which can cause brain cells and tissues to suffer damage and die. There are several types of stroke, each with its own cause, outcome, and prognosis.
Strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in the United States, and without medical attention, they can cause major disabilities in adults. However, most strokes are preventable with regular doctor visits and lifestyle changes. Plus, strokes can be treatable if the individual receives help quickly. If you are at risk of having a stroke, see a cardiologist regularly. If you believe you or someone near you is having a stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately.
Different types of strokes have different causes. Some strokes are caused by the blockage of a blood vessel. This is usually the result of plaque build-up or a blood clot. When this causes a stroke, it is called an ischemic stroke. By contrast, some strokes are caused by a sudden bleeding in the brain. These are called hemorrhagic strokes, and the exact cause is not always known.
As with many cardiovascular events, many strokes are preventable, but some people are genetically predisposed. If you are at risk for experiencing a stroke, see a cardiologist regularly. Working with a medical professional can reduce your risk and improve your prognosis in the event of a stroke.
Stroke symptoms are different between individuals, but some are widely experienced. Stroke symptoms usually appear in body parts controlled by the area of the brain that is damaged. In many cases, a person experiencing a stroke can exhibit any of the following conditions:
As with heart attacks, stroke symptoms in women are slightly different. People with female bodies are more likely to experience nausea, hallucination, pain, shortness of breath, seizures, and/or loss of consciousness than people with male bodies. Additionally, women are more likely to die than men from a stroke, likely because their symptoms are more generalized and harder to diagnose. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, contact an emergency service immediately.
Many lifestyle and genetic factors can increase the risk of a person experiencing a stroke. The most common lifestyle risk factors are the same for many other cardiovascular impairments: binge drinking, a lack of physical activity, a history of obesity, and the use of some illegal drugs, like methamphetamine and cocaine. Medical risk factors, some of which are genetic, can also increase a person’s risk of having a stroke:
The best way to remember common signs of a stroke is the FAST test. If you think someone may be having a stroke, use this acronym to assess their state:
F – Face: Ask the individual to smile. Observe whether one side of the face droops.
A – Arms: Ask the individual to raise both arms. If one arm cannot move, or if it drifts downward, they may be having a stroke.
S – Speech: Ask the individual to repeat a simple phrase, like their home address. Check for slurred speech.
T – Time: If you notice any of these signs, call 9-1-1 as soon as possible. Stroke outcomes improve significantly with fast treatment.
Remember that certain life-stage factors can increase risk of stroke. People aged 55 and over are at a higher risk, as are those with male bodies and people who are prescribed hormonal treatments, such as birth control pills and some hormone therapies.
While many stroke risk factors are genetic, lifestyle choices can significantly reduce your likelihood of experiencing a stroke. If you have a family history of this condition, talk to your cardiologist or general physician about which lifestyle changes can help most.
Strokes typically fall into three major categories: ischemic, transient ischemic attack (TIA), and hemorrhagic. We have explained each type of stroke in further detail below.
If your doctor believes you are having a stroke, they will review your medical history to understand your individual risk factors. They will also check your blood pressure, listen to your heart, and ask what medications you use. The doctor will also check your coordination, balance, and vision and check for signs of weakness, numbness, and confusion. From there, your doctor will likely administer treatment.
After stroke treatment, the doctor will likely conduct additional tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other potential causes. This can include a range of blood tests to check platelet levels and blood sugar. In most cases, the doctor will use an imaging test, such as an MRI or CT, to check for brain tissue damage.
The stroke treatment you receive will depend on the type of stroke you have experienced. Ischemic strokes and TIAs, which are caused by blood clots and blockage, are often treated with antiplatelet, anticoagulant, and clot-breaking drugs. Some may require a procedure, such as a mechanical thrombectomy. During this surgery, the doctor will insert a catheter into a large blood vessel inside the head, then manually extract the clot. A stent or other surgery may also be used to mitigate stroke causes.
Hemorrhagic strokes require different treatment strategies. During these strokes, the goal of treatment is to make blood clot, thus stopping the bleeding. As a result, you will likely receive drugs to reduce blood pressure and counteract any blood thinners you have taken. In some cases, a doctor may perform a coiling procedure. This involves using a long tube to support the weakened artery wall, which reduces bleeding. Your stroke may also require a clamping procedure, during which a doctor will place a small clamp at the base of the aneurysm, cutting off blood supply and preventing the blood vessel from bursting.
If you have experienced a TIA or an ischemic stroke, your cardiologist may put you on a medication to reduce future risk. Most often, this will include an anti-platelet drug or anticoagulants, both of which can reduce your risk for developing a blood clot.
Many strokes are the result of certain lifestyles and activities. While individual risk factors will vary by person, there are some strategies folks can use to reduce their risk of cardiovascular events. This includes controlling high blood pressure, lowering the amount of “bad” cholesterol and saturated fat in your diet, managing diabetes, quitting cigarette smoking, and regularly exercising. Talk to your doctor about how to manage your risk factors in a healthy and sustainable way.
Remember that it can take months, even years, to recover from a stroke. While some folks recover completely, others are left with lasting complications. Around 10 percent of stroke survivors will make an almost-complete recovery, while 25 percent will recover with minor impairments. Some stroke survivors will require speech or cognitive therapy, physical therapy, and/or therapy to help relearn certain sensory skills.
However, the best stroke treatment is stroke prevention. Work with your cardiologist to find a prevention strategy or stroke treatment that works for you.