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Stroke: The Basics

  • All
  • Overview
  • Symptoms & Causes
  • Diagnosis and Risk Factors
  • Treatment

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when a section of the brain is deprived of oxygen and the cells begin to die. This happens for one of two reasons: (1) A blood vessel in the brain becomes blocked, or (2) a blood vessel in the brain ruptures. Both of these situations cause damage to brain tissues and structures. If you or someone you are with is experiencing symptoms of a stroke (loss of muscle tone or paralysis on one side, slurred or confused speech, sudden blindness, confusion, and/or severe headache), call 911 (or the emergency number in your area).

Can you die from a stroke?

The consequences of a stroke depend on the type of stroke, its severity, and its location in the brain. A stroke can be debilitating, causing paralysis, loss of vision, loss of speech, or loss of memory. In severe cases or when medical intervention cannot be accessed quickly enough, a stroke can be fatal. Quickly getting medical help can mean the difference between death, severe debilitation, and a possible recovery. If you or someone you are with is experiencing symptoms of a stroke (loss of muscle tone or paralysis on one side, slurred or confused speech, sudden blindness, confusion, and/or severe headache), call 911 (or the emergency number in your area).

How many different types of strokes are there?

In general, there are two types of stroke: blood clot (blocked blood vessel) and hemorrhage (ruptured blood vessel). Strokes caused by clots are sometimes called ischemic attacks; these tend to be less severe, can be temporary (see “What is a TIA?” below), and are generally easier to treat. Hemorrhagic strokes are the result of a blood vessel rupturing in the brain. These tend to be more severe and have lower survival rates and lower chances of recovery.

What is a TIA?

TIA stands for Transient Ischemic Attack. In this type of stroke, which usually occurs in older people, the person has symptoms of a stroke (loss of muscle tone or paralysis on one side, slurred or confused speech, sudden blindness, confusion, and/or severe headache), but the symptoms only last a few hours. It is caused by a temporary blood clot in the person’s brain, which blocks blood flow. When the blood clot moves through the vessel, the symptoms stop. If you or someone you are with is experiencing a TIA, call 911 (or the emergency number in your area).

What is the difference between a stroke and a transient ischemic attack (TIA)?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defined a stroke as a “neurological deficit of cerebrovascular cause that persists beyond 24 hours or is interrupted by death within 24 hours.” The 24-hour limit is what many people use to separate a stroke from a TIA. TIAs (also known as mini-strokes) normally resolve within 24 hours and typically leave no lasting impairment.

What is a CVA? What is a “brain stroke”?

CVA stands for cerebrovascular accident, the medical term for a stroke. A stroke may also be called a “brain stroke” because the damage takes place in the brain.

What is a mild stroke or a mini-stroke?

Some people have mild strokes or “mini-strokes.” This is when there is a temporary blockage to a blood vessel in a person’s brain. If the symptoms go away after a few hours, it is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). The symptoms are similar to a regular stroke, but tend to be more minor and temporary. This is still a serious condition and may be an indication that a person is at risk for a more serious stroke. If you or someone you are with is experiencing symptoms of a stroke (loss of muscle tone or paralysis on one side, slurred or confused speech, sudden blindness, confusion, and/or severe headache), call 911 (or the emergency number in your area).

What is a pre-stroke?

There is no known diagnosis of “pre-stroke” or pre-stroke symptoms. High blood pressure or blood sugar levels that are significantly high or low could produce symptoms similar to a stroke, which may be temporary. If someone had the symptoms of a stroke but the symptoms resolved after a few hours, this could have been a TIA or transient ischemic attack (due to a temporary blood clot in the brain). If you or someone you are with is experiencing symptoms of a stroke (loss of muscle tone or paralysis on one side, slurred or confused speech, sudden blindness, confusion, and/or severe headache), call 911 (or the emergency number in your area).

What is a dense stroke?

A CT scan is used to determine the type and severity of a stroke. When looking at a CT scan, a medical professional may talk about a “dense artery sign.” This is the evidence of a blood clot or fat embolism blocked (or is still blocking) a major artery in the brain. This means the stroke was an ischemic stroke.

Is a stroke a disease?

A stroke is not, in itself, a disease. Some diseases or conditions can increase the risk for a stroke. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, sickle cell anemia, malaria, heart disease, and diabetes can all contribute to a stroke. You cannot catch a stroke from another person, and it is not caused by viruses or bacteria.

What are the signs of a stroke?

The symptoms of a stroke depend heavily on the severity of the stroke and where it occurs in a person’s brain. A stroke can result in loss of muscle control or paralysis on one side of the body, slurred or confused speech (words that are unclear or that do not make sense), blindness, confusion, loss of consciousness, or even death. Mild strokes can result in strange skin tingling sensations, smell of smoke or paint thinner, vision changes, visual hallucinations, deafness, severe tinnitus, or odd taste sensations. If you or someone you are with is experiencing symptoms of a stroke, call 911 (or the emergency number in your area).

What does a stroke feel like?

The experience of a stroke is disorienting and frightening. Some people have a panic attack at the onset of symptoms, while others are simply confused by what is happening to them. The most common physical feelings are numbness or tingling in an arm, leg, or one side of the face. In more severe cases, the speech center of the brain can be affected, which may make speech difficult or impossible to understand. In other instances, vision may become strange with visual hallucinations, blurriness, or a sudden onset of blindness. Walking may become difficult if the leg muscles are affected. The most important thing to do is remain calm, sit or lie down, and call 911 (or the emergency number in your area).

What causes a stroke?

Blood vessel blockage or rupture causes a stroke. Some of the situations that may contribute to blood vessel blockage or rupture are high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (a kind of irregular heartbeat), complications from diabetes, complications from smoking, and severe head trauma.

Can vasculitis cause a stroke?

Vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels) can drastically increase the risk for a stroke. Some treatments can help relieve vasculitis, depending on the cause. Certain forms of vasculitis are caused by diseases. If the disease is treated, then the vasculitis should diminish. If the vasculitis is caused by particular drugs, your doctor may recommend an alternative option. Other forms of vasculitis can be caused by certain cancers, which can be harder to treat and also present other complications besides stroke.

Can cerebrovascular disease cause a stroke? What causes cerebrovascular disease?

Cerebrovascular disease (CD) can increase the risk of stroke. This condition affects the blood vessels in the brain and may cause an ischemic stroke, hemorrhagic stroke, or mini-stroke. Certain causes of CD may not be controllable, such as fat embolisms (brought about by severe bodily injuries) or aneurysms. However, lifestyle factors that can lead to CD, such as high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, and diabetes can be controlled.

What should you do if someone has a stroke?

Call 911 (or the emergency number in your area) immediately. While you wait for help, make sure the person is safe and keep track of how long the person has been having the symptoms of a stroke. If the victim is conscious, have him or her sit or lie comfortably to prevent falling. DO NOT administer drugs, food, or water. DO NOT give any aspirin or other pain relievers as they may make the stroke worse by causing more bleeding in the brain. In the unlikely event that the person loses consciousness and stops breathing, it is safe to administer CPR or rescue breathing.

Can you see a stroke on an MRI?

An MRI, FMRI, or CT brain scan can be used to diagnose a stroke. These brain scans can also help to determine the cause, severity, and location of brain damage. They can also be used to help determine what types of therapy will be most helpful in recovery, as well as predict the chances for full recovery.

Do all strokes show up on a CT scan?

Most strokes will be visible on a CT scan. However, if one is particularly minor or it is too soon after a stroke, it may be difficult to detect. Furthermore, TIAs (transient ischemic attacks) will not be detected on a CT scan, as the blockage has probably already passed by the time of the scan.

Who is at risk for a stroke?

Certain lifestyle behaviors contribute to stroke risk. Smoking and obesity are the major risk factors. Because of their increased risk for high blood pressure, African-American individuals are at a greater risk for stroke. Those with diabetes and circulation problems are also at higher risk for stroke. In addition, if you have had a heart attack, a TIA (transient ischemic attack), or a previous stroke, you are at a much higher risk for a stroke.

What is the most common age for strokes?

Among the American population, 1 in 4 strokes occur in those under age 65. The risk for a stroke doubles roughly every decade after age 55. In rare instances and usually under severe circumstances, even infants can have a stroke. Doctors consider it quite rare to be under age 45 and have a stroke—at that age, a stroke is likely to be caused by a pre-existing health condition.

Are strokes genetic?

There is no particular single genetic defect which determines whether you will have a stroke. However, you may be predisposed to stroke in different ways. High blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol are linked to genetic factors and can play a part in stroke risk. In some cases of transient ischemic attack stroke, there is a genetic factor related to blood clotting that could play a role.

How long do the effects of a stroke last? How long does it take to recover from a stroke? Can you fully recover from a stroke?

Depending on the type of stroke, its severity, and the location of the damage in your brain, the effects of a stroke can be permanent. If symptoms disappear within a few hours, it is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). You may be relieved when the symptoms go away, but this can still indicate severe problems for which you should seek medical attention. If you can quickly get treatment for a stroke, your prognosis will be better. For many people, with quick treatment and good rehabilitative care, good outcomes are possible. Rehabilitation in the form of physical, occupational and speech-language therapies should begin as soon as possible. If recovery from a stroke is going to happen, it will typically happen within the first six months after the stroke. Beyond that, there is little chance for further recovery. In severe instances, lifelong assistance and accommodations may be necessary.

What percentage of stroke patients make a full recovery?

Very few stroke sufferers make a full recovery. According to the National Stroke Association, only about 10% of stroke victims recover completely. About 25% of patients recover with only minor impairments to abilities and functions. Two out of five people need specialized or long-term care and another 10% require permanent care, such as in a nursing home or similar care facility. Roughly 15% of stroke victims die from a stroke.

How can you prevent a stroke?

Having one stroke or a transient ischemic attack (TIA) means that you are more susceptible to further incidents. The key is to not have the first stroke. Lower your risk by stopping smoking and losing weight. Manage your diabetes, because those with diabetes are four times more likely to have a stroke. Get high blood pressure under control, as this will also decrease your risk for hemorrhagic stroke.

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