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Frequently Asked Questions About Stroke

  • What is stroke?
  • Answer:

    The two forms of stroke are ischemic -- blockage of a blood vessel supplying the brain, and hemorrhagic -- bleeding into or around the brain. In an ischemic stroke, a blood clot blocks or plugs a blood vessel or artery in the brain. About 80% of all strokes are ischemic. In a hemorrhagic stroke, a blood vessel in the brain breaks and bleeds into the brain. About 20% of strokes are hemorrhagic.

  • What happens during a stroke?
  • Answer:

    When a stroke occurs the blood supply to part of the brain is suddenly interrupted. Brain cells die when they no longer receive oxygen and nutrients from the blood or there is sudden bleeding into or around the brain.

  • What are the symptoms of a stroke?
  • Answer:

    The symptoms of a stroke include sudden numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding speech; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; sudden trouble with walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination; or sudden severe headache with no known cause.

  • Why can't some victims identify stroke symptoms?
  • Answer:

    Because stroke injures the brain, one is not able to perceive one's own problems correctly. To a bystander, the stroke patient may seem unaware or confused. A stroke victim's best chance is if someone around her recognizes the stroke and acts quickly.

  • What should a bystander do during a stroke?
  • Answer:

    During a stroke, bystanders should know the signs and act in time. If you believe someone is having a stroke -- if the person loses the ability to speak, move an arm or leg on one side, or experiences facial paralysis on one side -- call 911 immediately. Stroke is a medical emergency. Immediate stroke treatment may save someone's life and enhance his or her chances for successful rehabilitation and recovery.

  • Why is there a need to act fast during a stroke?
  • Answer:

    Ischemic strokes, the most common strokes, can be treated with a drug called tPA, which dissolves artery-obstructing clots. The window of opportunity to use tPA to treat stroke patients is three hours, but to be evaluated and receive treatment, patients need to get to the hospital within 60 minutes. Stroke patients who received tPA within three hours of the onset of stroke symptoms are at least 30% more likely than placebo patients to recover from their stroke with little or no disability after three months.

  • What are the risk factors for stroke?
  • Answer:

    There are things you can do to lower your risk of stroke. High blood pressure increases your risk of stroke four to six times. Heart disease, especially a condition known as atrial fibrillation or AF, can double your risk of stroke. Your risk also increases if you smoke, have diabetes, sickle cell disease, high cholesterol, or a family history of stroke.

  • Is there any treatment for stroke?
  • Answer:

    Generally there are three treatment stages for stroke: prevention, therapy immediately after the stroke, and post-stroke rehabilitation. Therapies to prevent a first or recurrent stroke are based on treating an individual's underlying risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, and diabetes. Acute stroke therapies try to stop a stroke while it is happening by quickly dissolving the blood clot causing an ischemic stroke or by stopping the bleeding of a hemorrhagic stroke. Post-stroke rehabilitation helps individuals overcome disabilities that result from stroke damage. Medication or drug therapy is the most common treatment for stroke. The most popular classes of drugs used to prevent or treat stroke are antithrombotics (antiplatelet drugs and anticoagulants or "blood thinners") and thrombolytics.

  • What is the prognosis for stroke?
  • Answer:

    Although stroke is a disease of the brain, it can affect the entire body. A common disability that results from stroke is complete paralysis on one side of the body, called hemiplegia. A related disability that is not as debilitating as paralysis is one-sided weakness or hemiparesis. Stroke may cause problems with thinking, awareness, attention, learning, judgment, and memory. Stroke survivors often have problems understanding or forming speech. A stroke can lead to emotional problems. Stroke patients may have difficulty controlling their emotions or may express inappropriate emotions. Many stroke patients experience depression. Stroke survivors may also have numbness or strange sensations. The pain is often worse in the hands and feet and is made worse by movement and temperature changes, especially cold temperatures.

    Recurrent stroke is frequent; about 25% of people who recover from their first stroke will have another stroke within five years.

  • What can you do to reduce your risk of stroke?
  • Answer:

    Stroke is a leading cause of serious, long-term adult disability. Four million Americans are living with the effects of stroke. The length of time to recover from a stroke depends on its severity. Fifty percent to 70% of stroke survivors regain functional independence, but 15% to 30% are permanently disabled.

    To reduce your risk of stroke, monitor your blood pressure, track your cholesterol level, stop smoking, exercise regularly, and find out if you should be taking a drug to reduce blood clotting.

  • What is a transient ischemic attack?
  • Answer:

    A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a stroke that lasts only a few minutes. It occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is briefly interrupted. TIA symptoms, which usually occur suddenly, are similar to those of stroke but do not last as long. Most symptoms of a TIA disappear within an hour, although they may persist for up to 24 hours. Symptoms can include: numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body; confusion or difficulty in talking or understanding speech; trouble seeing in one or both eyes; and difficulty with walking, dizziness, or loss of balance and coordination.

  • Is there any treatment for TIA?
  • Answer:

    Because there is no way to tell whether symptoms are from a TIA or an acute stroke, patients should assume that all stroke-like symptoms signal an emergency and should not wait to see if they go away. A prompt evaluation (within 60 minutes) is necessary to identify the cause of the TIA and determine appropriate therapy.

    Depending on a patient's medical history and the results of a medical examination, the doctor may recommend drug therapy or surgery to reduce the risk of stroke in people who have had a TIA. The use of antiplatelet drugs, particularly aspirin, is a standard treatment for patients at risk for stroke. People with atrial fibrillation (irregular beating of the heart) may be prescribed anticoagulants.

  • What is the prognosis for TIA?
  • Answer:

    TIAs are often warning signs that a person is at risk for a more serious and debilitating stroke. About one-third of those who have a TIA will have an acute stroke some time in the future. Many strokes can be prevented by heeding the warning signs of TIAs and treating underlying risk factors for stroke. The most important treatable factors linked to TIAs and stroke are high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, heart disease, carotid artery disease, diabetes, and heavy use of alcohol. Medical help is available to reduce and eliminate these factors. Lifestyle changes such as eating a balanced diet, maintaining healthy weight, exercising, and enrolling in smoking and alcohol cessation programs can also reduce these factors.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on March 23, 2013

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