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Depiction of Brain stroke

A guide to understanding Stroke: What you need to know

Every year in the United States, more than 5.7 million people experience a stroke. While it’s not something that most of us worry about, it is a serious medical condition that can have devastating effects on the brain and cognitive function.

It is possible for anyone to have a stroke, but certain factors are linked to an increased risk of having one.
Stroke is caused by a blockage or rupture in a blood vessel in the brain. When this happens, blood flow to the part of the brain affected is cut off.

As a result, tissues in that part die and become irreversibly damaged. If left untreated, a stroke may lead to permanent damage or death if not treated quickly with treatment strategies such as supportive care and rehabilitation exercises.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), annually 15 million people worldwide suffer a stroke.  of those, 5 million die and another 5 million are left permanently disabled.

Read on for more information about what causes strokes and how you can reduce your chances of developing one if you are at risk.

What is Stroke?

A stroke is the result of an interruption in blood supply to the brain. When this happens, brain tissue dies and becomes irreversibly damaged.

There are three main types of stroke: ischemic, hemorrhagic, and subarachnoid.

Ischemic Stroke

Ischemic strokes occur when a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain is either blocked or bursts. The most common ischemic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the heart is narrowed by atherosclerosis, a disease of the blood vessels. This is the type of stroke that more often occurs in people older than 65.

Human with Ischemic stroke illustration

Hemorrhagic Stroke

Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. This type of stroke is more common in young adults and is caused by an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a condition in which one of the small arteries in the brain becomes tangled with a vein.

If an arteriovenous malformation occurs in the brain, blood will flow from the arteries through the tangled vein to the brain but not through the other veins in the brain. This results in a condition in which blood pools in the front part of the brain and causes a stroke.

Human with Hemorrhagic stroke illustration

Subarachnoid Stroke

Subarachnoid strokes occur when part of the brain leaks out through the covering of the brain called the arachnoid membrane. Although subarachnoid strokes affect only a small percentage of all strokes, they are the most damaging because the leaking blood does not reach tissues quickly and the brain is not protected by the coverings.

The type of subarachnoid stroke that most often occurs in people younger than 65 is due to an aneurysm, a weak area in the wall of an artery that is ruptured or weakened.

Risk factors for Stroke

As you might expect, the more risk factors you have for stroke, the greater your risk of developing it. How high your risk factors depend on a variety of factors including your age, race, and sex, your existing medical conditions and the use of certain prescribed medications.

Smoking is very dangerous and may lead to stroke

Knowing what these risk factors are and how to protect yourself from them can go a long way toward preventing a stroke.

  • African Americans have a higher risk of stroke than whites. African-Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes and have a higher risk of clotting disorders such as hemophilia.
  • People over 65 have the highest risk of all. It is estimated that one in four people over 65 will have a stroke in their lifetime. But when people are younger, the risk is also high, one in five people between the ages of 35 and 65 will have a stroke.
  • People with a family history of stroke also have a higher risk. Having a first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) with a stroke increases your risk of developing one yourself.
  • Smoking increases the risk of stroke considerably. While it is true that people who smoke only slightly increase their risk of stroke, the more cigarettes you smoke, the higher your risk. People who have quit smoking for less than six months have a higher risk than people who have never been smokers.
  • High blood pressure also increases your risk of stroke. Although hypertensive disorders occur in people of all ages, the risk is highest in people over 65 who are also hypertensives.

Signs and Symptoms

A stroke may have no obvious signs or symptoms at all. The earliest sign of a stroke is often an impairment in the part of the body that is affected.

For example, if the part of the body affected is the limbs, it will be difficult to walk or move the affected limbs. If the impairment affects the brain, the person may develop difficulties with speech and memory. If you have any of these signs and symptoms, you should call your emergency number immediately.

  • Paralysis of the face, arm or leg. If you develop numbness in these areas, and in one side of the body. Try to raise both of your arms over your head at the same time. If one arm begins to fall, you may be having stroke. Also one side of your mouth may droop when you try to smile.
  • Headache. A sudden, severe headache, accompanied by vomiting, dizziness or altered consciousness, may indicate that you have stroke
  • Problems in one’s speech. You might experience confusion, slur words or have difficulty understanding speech
  • Problems in one`s site. You may suddenly have blurred vision in one or both eyes, or you may see double
  • Motion or walking problems. You may lose balance or stumble. You may also feel sudden dizziness or a loss of coordination.


Stroke can sometimes cause temporary or permanent disabilities, depending on how long the brain lacks blood flow and which part is affected.

Patient with temporary paralysis from Stroke

The following are the complication of stroke;

  • Memory loss and thinking difficulties. Many people who have strokes experience some memory loss. Others may have difficulty thinking, reasoning, making judgment and understanding concepts.
  • Pain. Numbness, pain or other unusual sensations may occur in the parts of the body affected by stroke. For example, if a stroke causes you to lose feeling in the left arm, you may develop an uncomfortable tingling sensation in that arm.
  • Emotional problems
  • Behavioral changes. People who had strokes may become more withdrawn. They may need help with grooming and daily chores
  • Paralysis. One side of your body may become paralyzed, you may sometimes lose the control of certain muscles in your body such as those of one side of the face or one arm.
  • Difficulty talking or swallowing. Stroke may affect control of the muscles in the mouth and throat, making it difficult for you to talk clearly, swallow or eat. You might also experience difficulty with language, including speaking or understanding speech, reading, or writing.

Prevention strategies

The following measures may help to prevent Stroke.

  • Control high blood pressure (hypertension). Make sure to talk to your doctor to help you with lifestyle changes and medication so that you can lower your blood pressure.
  • Stop smoking. Tobacco smoking increases the risk of stroke to the smoker and people who are exposed to the smokers.
  • Managing diabetes. Healthy lifestyle may help you keep your blood sugar in a healthy range. Medication may be used to control your diabetes.
  • Maintaining health weight. Obesity contributes to stroke risk factors.
  • Lowering the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat in your diet.
  • Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Diet containing fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of stroke.
  • Reduce the consumption of alcohol or stop if possible. Heavy alcohol consumption increases the risk of high blood pressure, ischemic stroke, and hemorrhagic strokes.
  • Treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Talk to your doctor if you have any signs of breathing problems during your sleep.
  • Avoid illegal drugs. Drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine increase the risk of stroke.
  • Do physical exercise regularly.

Rehabilitation after a Stroke

After a stroke, the biggest concern for most people is rebuilding the damaged parts of the brain with new healthy tissue. Stroke rehabilitation focuses on helping people regain their ability to walk, talk, and do other activities as soon as possible.

The goals are to prevent further damage to the brain and help your brain rewire itself after a stroke. Rehabilitation can be very effective in helping people recover if it is done properly. Depending on the type of stroke you had, your doctor may recommend certain types of physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy.

People who have a minor stroke can often return to their normal activities after a few days. However, people with a major stroke may need months or even years of rehabilitation to return to their normal level of function.

Parting thoughts

Everyone should know that they are at risk of having a stroke sometime in their life. The good news is that there are ways to lower that risk, including catching and treating high blood pressure, staying active and being conscious about weight management. Taking steps such as these can help reduce your risk of having the condition.

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