A stroke happens when blood flow to part of the brain is suddenly slowed or stopped. The part of the brain that loses its blood supply stops working. You may have trouble using the part of the body that is controlled by the part of the brain that is damaged.
A small stroke may cause little damage. Sometimes you may have problems right after a stroke but they may then go away completely within less than a day. These types of small strokes are called transient ischemic attacks, or TIAs. Bigger strokes can cause life-long damage. Sometimes they cause death.
How much you recover from a stroke depends on how much of the brain was damaged. Some people recover fully from a stroke. Others keep having problems, like weakness in an arm or leg on one side, inability to speak, or paralysis. Full recovery from a stroke is more likely if you get medical care right away.
A stroke is also called a cerebral vascular accident, or CVA.
What is the cause?
A stroke can be caused by anything that stops or slows down blood flow to part of the brain. Blood can be kept from reaching brain tissue when a blood vessel gets blocked (an ischemic stroke) or bursts (a hemorrhagic stroke).
An ischemic stroke is the most common kind of stroke. A blood vessel in the brain can be blocked in different ways.
Fatty deposits called plaque may build up in blood vessels that bring blood to the brain. The plaque makes the blood vessels narrower. The narrowing decreases the amount of blood flow to the brain. Small pieces of plaque may break off from the wall of a blood vessel and completely block a smaller blood vessel.
Blood clots or fat from other parts of the body may travel to the brain or neck and block a blood vessel in the brain.
A hemorrhagic stroke happens when an artery in the brain tears open and causes bleeding into the brain. A hemorrhage often happens without warning. High blood pressure can cause hemorrhagic strokes. Sometimes a blood vessel defect present since birth can cause this type of stroke.
Your risk of having a stroke is higher if you:
Are over the age of 55
Have a family member who has had a stroke
Are African American
Have already had a stroke, TIA, or heart attack
You are more likely to have a stroke if you have a medical condition that puts a strain on your heart and blood vessels such as:
High blood pressure
Diabetes or metabolic syndrome
Blood vessel disease
Heart rhythm or heart valve problems
Sickle cell anemia
Some unhealthy lifestyle habits can increase your risk for a stroke. You are more likely to have a stroke if you:
Eat an unhealthy diet
Don’t get enough exercise
Use illegal drugs or too much alcohol
What are the symptoms?
It helps to think of the word FAST (face, arm, speech, and time) to remember stroke symptoms and what to do. Stroke symptoms come on FAST and may include:
Weakness, numbness, drooping, or tingling of face (may just be on one side)
Trouble seeing (one or both eyes)
Feeling dizzy along with one or more of the symptoms listed above
Weakness, numbness, or tingling in your arm or leg (may be on just one side of your body)
Trouble walking or moving your arm or leg
Trouble talking or understanding speech
Call 911 for emergency help right away if you have symptoms of a stroke.
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and your medical history and examine you. Sometimes other problems such as brain tumors or infections can cause these types of symptoms so you need to have tests such as:
MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the brain and blood vessels
CT scan, which uses X-rays and a computer to show detailed pictures of the brain and blood vessels
Ultrasound, which uses sound waves to show pictures of the blood vessels in the neck and brain
Cerebral angiogram, which uses dye injected into a vein and X-rays to look at how blood flows through the brain
ECG (also called an EKG), which measures and records your heartbeat
Echocardiogram, which uses sound waves (ultrasound) to show pictures of the inside of the heart
Your healthcare provider will not know for sure what type of stroke you had until you have a CT or MRI scan. If either test shows bleeding in the brain, the stroke is more likely to be hemorrhagic. If tests show damage without much bleeding, then the stroke is likely to be ischemic. Since treatment is different tor these 2 types of stroke, itâ€™s important to have these tests as soon as possible so you can get the right treatment.
How is it treated?
A stroke is a medical emergency. If you think that you or someone near you is having a stroke, call 911 right away. Don’t do anything else before you call 911.
Don’t take aspirin if you think you are having a stroke unless a healthcare provider tells you to do so. Aspirin can make a hemorrhagic stroke much worse.
Strokes need to be treated in a hospital. The treatment depends on what kind of stroke you are having.
A stroke caused by blood clots may be treated with clot-dissolving medicine.
When a stroke is caused by bleeding in the brain, your healthcare provider will try to stop the bleeding and fix the torn blood vessel causing the problem.
You may need surgery to repair a blood vessel, correct blood flow problems, or remove a blood clot.
How can I take care of myself?
Follow the treatment plan your provider recommends.
After a stroke, you may need to start a rehabilitation program to help you recover and adapt to problems caused by the stroke. Depending on how the stroke has affected you, this may include physical therapy, occupational therapy, or speech therapy.
Physical therapy can help your muscles get strong again. Not all muscles weakened by stroke will recover completely. You will need to learn ways to move safely with weak or paralyzed muscles.
Occupational therapy may help if you have problems doing things like feeding yourself and getting dressed.
Speech therapy may help if you have problems with swallowing, speaking, or understanding words.
You will also learn about diet, exercise, and other ways to improve your health and help prevent another stroke.
Ask your provider:
How and when you will hear your test results
What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
How to take care of yourself at home
What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
How can I help prevent a stroke?
Some of the risks for a stroke cannot be prevented, such as age, race, and family history. Other risks, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease can be controlled with the help of your healthcare provider. Lifestyle changes can also help prevent a stroke:
Lose weight if you need to and keep a healthy weight.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2014-05-28 Last reviewed: 2014-05-27
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Adams, HP Jr, et al. Guidelines for the early management of adults with ischemic stroke: a guideline from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association Stroke Council, Clinical Cardiology Council, Cardiovascular Radiology and Intervention Council, and the Atherosclerotic Peripheral Vascular Disease and Quality of Care Outcomes in Research Interdisciplinary Working Groups. Stroke 2007; 38:1655.
Collaborative meta-analysis of randomised trials of antiplatelet therapy for prevention of death, myocardial infarction, and stroke in high risk patients. BMJ 2002; 324:71.
Definition and evaluation of transient ischemic attack: a scientific statement for healthcare professionals from the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association Stroke Council; Council on Cardiovascular Surgery and Anesthesia; Council on Cardiovascular Radiology and Intervention; Council on Cardiovascular Nursing; and the Interdisciplinary Council on Peripheral Vascular Disease.