Strokes: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

During a stroke, a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain bursts or is blocked by a blood clot. Nerve cells in the affected area of the brain can be damaged within minutes and can die within hours. It is estimated that during a stroke, 2 million brain cells die every minute.

Strokes are the third-leading cause of death among Americans, behind heart disease and cancer, and are the No. 1 cause of adult disability, according to the National Stroke Association. More than 750,000 people suffer from strokes each year.

What Causes A Stroke?
An ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the brain. A blood clot can develop in a narrowed artery that supplies the brain or can travel from the heart (or elsewhere in the body) to an artery that supplies the brain. About 80 percent of strokes are ischemic.

Blood clots can be caused by other body issues that affect the flow of blood, including:
  • Hardening of the arteries
  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Certain heart valve problems, diseases or infections
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Vasculitis
  • Heart attack

    The other 20 percent of strokes are hemorrhagic — strokes that occur when a blood vessel breaks and blood leaks into the brain.

  • What Are The Symptoms?
  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially if it occurs on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, or double vision
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause
  • Drowsiness, nausea, or vomiting

    How a stroke patient is affected depends on the location in the brain where the stroke occurs. For example, someone who has a small stroke may experience only minor problems such as weakness of an arm or leg. People who have larger strokes may be paralyzed on one side or lose their ability to speak, according to the National Stroke Association.

    Anyone who has symptoms of a stroke needs emergency care. The sooner medical treatment begins after symptoms are noticed, the fewer brain cells may be damaged.

  • Can You Prevent A Stroke?
    Up to 80 percent of all strokes are preventable, according to the National Stroke Association. The basics of preventing a stroke are similar to the steps to having a healthy heart, including exercising regularly, not smoking, keeping cholesterol and blood pressure down and keeping a diet low in sodium and fat.

    A stroke can happen at any stage of life, even in fetuses and children, but it becomes more likely with age. Stroke occurs most often in people over age 65.

    How Do Doctors Treat Strokes?

    Strokes are treated in several different ways, including by surgery, medications, hospital care and rehabilitation. Strokes caused by blood clots might be treated with a surgery to remove artery plaque or an angioplasty surgery.

    A drug that dissolves blood clots might also be used. Called tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, the drug dissolves the clot and can restore blood flow to the brain. TPA is usually effective only if administered promptly.

    To learn more about strokes:
    • Click here for a stroke guide from WebMD.
    The National Stroke Association has resources on strokes and prevention. Or call 1-800-STROKES.
    • Click here for resources from the American Stroke Association.
    • Check out the National Stroke Association's stroke risk scorecard (.pdf).
    • See the AARP's information on strokes here.
    • Find out what's happening in your neighborhood, from the American Stroke Association.

    • Christine Lagorio

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