Key Points of a Stroke
- A stroke occurs if the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a portion of the brain is blocked. Without oxygen, brain cells start to die after a few minutes. Sudden bleeding in the brain also can cause a stroke if it damages brain cells.
- If brain cells die or are damaged because of a stroke, symptoms occur in the parts of the body that these brain cells control.
- A stroke can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability, or death.
- If you think you or someone else is having a stroke, call 9–1–1 right away. Do not drive to the hospital or let someone else drive you. Call an ambulance so that medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment on the way to the emergency room. During a stroke, every minute counts.
- The two main types of stroke are ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke occurs if an artery that supplies oxygen-rich blood to the brain becomes blocked. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs if an artery in the brain leaks blood or ruptures (breaks open).
- Another condition that’s similar to a stroke is a transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA also occurs if blood flow to a portion of the brain is blocked. However, during a TIA, blood flow is blocked only for a short time. Thus, damage to the brain cells isn’t permanent (lasting). A TIA increases your chances of having a stroke.
- Blood clots often cause the blockages that lead to ischemic strokes and TIAs. Many medical conditions—such as atherosclerosis, carotid artery disease, and atrial fibrillation—can increase the risk of ischemic stroke or TIA.
- Conditions that can cause bleeding in the brain and lead to hemorrhagic stroke include high blood pressure, aneurysms, and arteriovenous malformations (AVMs).
- Certain traits, conditions, and habits raise your risk of having a stroke or TIA. These traits, conditions, and habits are known as risk factors. You can treat or control some risk factors, such as high blood pressure or smoking. Other risk factors—such as age, gender, and family history—you can’t control.
- The signs and symptoms of a stroke often develop quickly. However, they can develop over hours or even days. Signs and symptoms may include:
- Sudden weakness
- Paralysis (an inability to move) or numbness of the face, arms, or legs, especially on one side of the body)
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Problems breathing
- Dizziness, trouble walking, loss of balance or coordination, and unexplained falls
- Loss of consciousness
- Severe headache with no clear cause
- The signs and symptoms of a TIA are the same as those of a stroke, and both require emergency medical care.
- Your doctor will diagnose a stroke based on your signs and symptoms, your medical history, a physical exam, and test results.
- Treatment for a stroke depends on whether it’s ischemic or hemorrhagic. Treatment for a TIA depends on its cause, how much time has passed since symptoms began, and whether you have other medical conditions. Treatments for both types of stroke and TIA may include medicines, medical procedures, and/or surgery.
- After initial treatment for a stroke or TIA, your doctor will treat your risk factors. He or she may recommend lifestyle changes to help control your risk factors. Lifestyle changes may include quitting smoking, following a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and being physically active. If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, you may need medicine to control your risk factors.
- Taking action to control your risk factors can help prevent or delay a stroke. If you’ve already had a stroke, these actions can help prevent another one.
- The time it takes to recover from a stroke varies—it can take weeks, months, or even years. Some people recover fully, while others have long-term or lifelong medical problems.
- If you’ve had a stroke, you’re at risk of having another one. Know the warning signs of a stroke and what to do if they occur. Call 9–1–1 as soon as symptoms start.
- After a stroke, you may need rehabilitation (rehab) to help you recover. Rehab may include working with speech, physical, and occupational therapists.
- If you’ve had a stroke or are at risk of having a stroke, you may benefit from taking part in a clinical trial. Clinical trials test new ways to prevent, diagnose, or treat various diseases and conditions. For more information about clinical trials related to stroke, talk with your doctor.
Ongoing Care After a Stroke
Lifestyle changes can help you recover from a stroke and may help prevent another one. Examples of these changes include quitting smoking, following a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and being physically active. Talk with your doctor about the types and amounts of physical activity that are safe for you.
Your doctor also may prescribe medicines to help you recover from a stroke or control your stroke risk factors. Take all of your medicines as your doctor prescribes.
If you had an ischemic stroke, you may need to take anticoagulants, also called blood thinners. These medicines prevent blood clots from getting larger and keep new clots from forming. You’ll likely need routine blood tests to check how well these medicines are working.
The most common side effect of blood thinners is bleeding. This happens if the medicine thins your blood too much. This side effect can be life threatening. Bleeding can occur inside your body cavities (internal bleeding) or from the surface of your skin (external bleeding).
Know the warning signs of bleeding so you can get help right away. They include:
- Unexplained bruising and/or tiny red or purple dots on the skin
- Unexplained bleeding from the gums and nose
- Increased menstrual flow
- Bright red vomit or vomit that looks like coffee grounds
- Blood in your urine, bright red blood in your stools, or black tarry stools
- Pain in your abdomen or severe pain in your head
A lot of bleeding after a fall or injury or easy bruising or bleeding also may mean that your blood is too thin. Call your doctor right away if you have any of these signs. If you have severe bleeding, call 9–1–1.
Talk with your doctor about how often you should schedule follow up visits or tests. These visits and tests can help your doctor monitor your stroke risk factors and adjust your treatment as needed.