Stroke: Understanding Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments
Stroke is the 5th leading cause of death in the United States, with one person dying every 4 minutes. For black people, it is the 3rd leading cause of death. Approximately 800,000 people have a stroke each year; about one every 40 seconds. Only heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and accidents are more deadly.
What Is a Stroke?
Stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain bursts or when a blockage develops. Without treatment, cells in the brain quickly begin to die. The result can be serious disability or death. If a loved one is having stroke symptoms, seek emergency medical attention without delay.
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the body, especially on one side.
- Major vision changes in one or both eyes, or difficulty swallowing.
- Instant severe headache with unknown cause.
- Severe dizziness, problem walking, lost balance.
- Sudden confusion, difficulty speaking or understanding others.
Testing For Stroke: Talk, Wave, Smile
The F.A.S.T. test helps spot symptoms of stroke. It stands for:
Face. Ask for a smile. Does one side droop?
Arms. When raised, does one side drift down?
Speech. Can the person repeat a simple sentence? Does he or she have trouble or slur words?
Time. Time is critical. Call 911 immediately if any symptoms are present.
Avoid Brain Damage, Hurry!
Every second counts when seeking treatment. When deprived of oxygen, brain cells start dying within minutes. There are clot-busting drugs that can curb brain damage, but they need to be used within three hours of the initial symptoms. Once brain tissue has died, the body parts controlled by that area don’t work correctly. This is why stroke is a top cause of long-term disability.
After diagnosing symptoms, the first step is to determine which type of stroke is occurring. There are two main types and they are not treated the same way. A CT scan can help doctors determine whether the symptoms are coming from a blocked blood vessel or a bleeding vessel. Additional tests are also used to find the location of a blood clot or bleeding within the brain.
The most common type of stroke is known as an ischemic stroke. Nearly nine out of 10 strokes fall into this category. The cause is a blood clot that obstructs a blood vessel inside the brain. The clot may develop on the spot or travel through the blood from elsewhere in the body.
Hemorrhagic strokes are less common but much more deadly. They occur when a weakened blood vessel in the brain bursts. The result is bleeding inside the brain that can be almost impossible to stop.
‘Mini-Stroke’ Ischemic (TIA)
A transient ischemic attack, often called a “mini-stroke,” is more like a close call. Blood flow is temporarily impaired to part of the brain, causing symptoms similar to an actual stroke. When the blood flows again, the symptoms disappear. A TIA is a warning sign that a stroke may happen soon. It’s critical to seek emergency medical help if you think you’ve had a TIA. There are therapies to reduce the risk and recurrence.
A major cause is atherosclerosis, hardening of the arteries. Plaque made of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances builds up in the arteries, leaving less space for blood to flow. A blood clot may lodge in this narrow space and cause an ischemic stroke. Atherosclerosis also makes it easier for a clot to form. Hemorrhagic strokes often result from uncontrolled high blood pressure that causes a weakened artery to burst.
High Risk Factors
These chronic conditions increase your risk. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
Taking steps to control these conditions will reduce your risk.
Get rid of these bad habits:
- Getting too little exercise
- Heavy use of alcohol
Diet Is Key
A poor diet will increase your risk in a few significant ways. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and nuts will help lower stroke risk.
For an ischemic stroke, emergency treatment focuses on medicine to restore blood flow. A clot-busting drug is highly effective at dissolving clots and minimizing long-term damage. But has to be given within 3-4 of the initial symptoms. For Hemorrhagic strokes treatment involves controlling high blood pressure, bleeding, and brain swelling.
Whether a stroke causes long-term damage depends on its severity and how quickly treatment stabilizes the brain. Also, the type of damage depends on where in the brain the it has occurred. Common problems include numbness in the arms or legs, vision problems, trouble swallowing, and slurred speech. These can be permanent or transitory.
Stroke: Speech Therapy
Rehabilitation is the centerpiece of the stroke recovery process. It helps patients regain lost skills and learn to compensate for damage that can’t be undone. The goal is to restore as much independence as possible. For people who have trouble speaking, speech and language therapy is essential. A speech therapist can also help patients who have trouble swallowing.
Muscle weakness, as well as balance problems, are very common. This can interfere with walking and other daily activities. Physical therapy is an effective way to regain strength, balance, and coordination. For fine motor skills, such as using a knife and fork, writing, and buttoning a shirt, occupational therapy can help.
For people with a high risk of stroke, doctors often recommend medications to lower this risk. Anti-platelet drugs, including aspirin, keep platelets in the blood from sticking together and forming clots. Anti-clotting drugs, such as warfarin, can help ward off stroke in some patients. Finally, if you have high blood pressure, you must take medication to lower it.
In some cases, a stroke results from a narrowed carotid artery, the blood vessels that travel up each side of the neck to bring blood to the brain. TIA patients may benefit from surgery known as carotid endarterectomy. This procedure removes plaque from the lining of the carotid arteries which can reduce additional strokes.
Balloon and Stent
Doctors can also treat a clogged carotid artery without major surgery in some cases. The procedure, called angioplasty, involves temporarily inserting a catheter into the artery and inflating a tiny balloon to widen the area that is narrowed by plaque. A metal tube, called a stent, can be inserted and left in place to keep the artery open.
Many people who have a stroke regain the ability to take care of themselves if they follow their rehabilitation plan. Those who get clot-busting drugs soon enough may recover completely. And those who experience disability can often learn to function independently through therapy. Moreover, 3% to 4% of first time patients that will subsequently experience a second stroke.
Reduce your risk of stroke with diet and exercise. And, also watch these two excellent videos:
And this video shows you an actual live stroke happening, scary: