The Ultimate Introduction to Strokes

What is a stroke? And what does it mean to have one? Gain awareness of this important topic with our overview of strokes.
introduction to strokes

You’re already familiar with the term stroke. Maybe you even know and love someone who’s experienced one. 

But do you really know what it means to have a stroke? Are you aware of the different types of strokes, their common causes, and the factors that increase your stroke risk? Do you know strategies to minimize and manage your risks for a stroke? 

If your knowledge of strokes doesn’t extend past the term itself, this article is for you.

In it, we’ll provide an overview of all things stroke, so you can approach the subject with enhanced awareness and insight.

Because someday, what you know about strokes could literally save a life. That life could even be your own.

Let’s dive in, to review the vital facts about strokes. 

What is a Stroke? And What Causes a Stroke to Occur?

images of brain with stroke

The medical term for a stroke is a cerebrovascular accident, or CVA. When you break it down, this term contains key information about what a stroke is. 

Cerebro refers to the brain. Vascular means it concerns the blood vessels. And an accident is, well, an accident. 

When we combine these, it clarifies that a stroke is an accident that occurs in the blood vessels of the brain. 

Like any accident, a stroke is typically a sudden, unexpected occurrence. But why is it such a big deal?

Strokes are serious because your brain depends on a steady supply of oxygen-rich blood in order to function. Any disruption to your brain’s blood supply can cause your neurons (sometimes referred to as brain cells) to get sick and die off. 

Your brain cells run on oxygen, and your blood vessels are the delivery system for oxygen and other vital nutrients your brain needs to do its many important jobs. 

When a stroke occurs, a blood vessel that feeds your neurons becomes blocked or experiences a bleed that interrupts the flow of blood to your brain. 

The outward symptoms of a stroke are related to the brain area that’s impacted by the blockage or bleed. Stroke symptoms also depend on the extent of the damage, and the length of time between its onset to the beginning of treatment. 

See, your brain has something called localization of function. This simply means specific parts of your brain are tasked with specific functions. 

Now, some tasks involve many different portions of your brain—big things like memory, or language skills—but it can be helpful to understand that certain parts of your brain are in charge of certain things. 

So, if you have a stroke that impacts the part of your frontal lobe that’s responsible for organizing your thoughts into coherent speech (known as Broca’s area), you’ll experience outward symptoms that impact your verbal language skills. 

Stokes can occur in a variety of ways, but there are some common culprits that lead to this condition. 

Most strokes result from blockages caused by conditions such as untreated high blood pressure, cardiac events, and blood clots. 

Strokes caused by brain bleeds are often the result of head trauma or traumatic brain injuries, which can be sustained from events like falls, automobile accidents, or blows to the head. 

Now, let’s discuss the common outward signs and symptoms of stroke, to improve your ability to identify one. 

What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke?

image depicting the signs of a stroke

When it comes to strokes, rapid identification is a crucial factor in both survival and recovery prognosis. 

A common expression in the medical community about stroke is— “time lost is brain lost.” 

This phrase refers to the known importance of quick identification and treatment in the event of a stroke. This is associated with more positive outcomes, such as symptom reversal and the increased possibility of a complete recovery. 

When you consider that 2 million brain cells are injured every minute during a stroke event, this expression takes on even greater meaning. 

But how can you pinpoint the signs and symptoms of a stroke if you witness one in the wild?

Thankfully, strokes often present with common outward signs and symptoms that can assist you in identification. 

Because a stroke typically impacts one half of the body, its effects are usually one-sided. 

One-sided weakness in the arm and leg can be an indicator of a stroke, as can facial drooping on one side of the face. 

Slurred speech is another common sign of stroke, as is sudden confusion, difficulty with word-finding, and garbled speech. 

In some cases, a person having a stroke will be able to speak but won’t make sense. They may or may not be aware of this. 

An excellent strategy for identifying stroke symptoms is to use the acronym: Act FAST, developed by the American Stroke Association. 

This serves as a simple reminder of the common symptoms of stroke, and stands for—

Face—is one side of the face drooping or numb? Does the person’s tongue go to one side when they’re asked to stick it out straight?

Arm—is one arm hanging down, or feel numb or weak?

Speech—is the person’s speech slurred, confused, or incoherent?

Time—If any of the above symptoms are present, it’s time to dial 911! 

Other stroke symptoms can include severe headache, disorientation, difficulty walking and standing, and vision issues. 

Here’s a link to a downloadable brochure from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) about recognizing stroke symptoms. 

What Are the Different Types of Stroke?

doctor holding image portraying the different types of strokes

A stroke is an attack on the brain, but not all strokes are created equal. There are three primary types of stroke.

Let’s explore what they are, how they happen, and what causes each. 

Ischemic Strokes 

The most common type of stroke, ischemic strokes are responsible for around 87% of all stroke events. 

An ischemic stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is blocked. This can occur in a couple of ways. 

  • In an embolic ischemic stroke, a piece of material (usually a blood clot or plaque debris) developed in a blood vessel in the body breaks free and travels to the brain, impacting the blood flow when it reaches this destination. A way to remember this type of ischemic stroke is to say— “an embolism embarks on a journey.” 
  • In a thrombotic ischemic stroke, a blockage develops in the blood vessels in the brain. A quick trick to remember this is to say—”a thrombosis thrives where it is.” 

As we discussed above, when the brain is deprived of its steady supply of oxygen-delivering blood, its neurons quickly begin to get sick and die off. This is what occurs in an ischemic stroke. 

Hemorrhagic Strokes

Hemorrhagic strokes account for around 13% of all stroke events. In this type of stroke, a blood vessel that feeds the brain ruptures and bleeds. 

As with an ischemic stroke, a hemorrhagic stroke deprives the brain of its blood supply, but it can also cause pressure, swelling, and irritation to the brian’s tissues, further complicating the issue. 

The two main types of hemorrhagic stroke are—

  • Subarachnoid hemorrhagethis type of brain bleed occurs most often when a blood vessel in the tissues surrounding the brain ruptures as a result of an aneurysm or head injury, causing bleeding that impacts the brain and can cause swelling. The subarachnoid space is part of your brain’s cushioning. 
  • Intracerebral hemorrhage—this occurs when a blood vessel located within the brain begins to bleed, increasing pressure on the brain as a result of the excess fluid buildup. This is most often caused by untreated high blood pressure, a tangle of brain arteries known as AVM, or weakened blood vessels due to aging. 

While hemorrhagic strokes account for a much smaller percentage of strokes than ischemic strokes, they are much more deadly and tend to cause a higher rate of disability

Rapid treatment in the case of hemorrhagic strokes is vital to improve chances for survival and lasting symptom reduction. 

Transient Ischemic Attacks 

Commonly referred to as a “mini stroke,” a transient ischemic attack, or TIA often shows up as the sudden appearance of stroke symptoms, followed by their disappearance. 

The outward signs of a TIA mimic the common stroke symptoms we reviewed above, because they’re also caused by a blood vessel being blocked from delivering its supply to the brain. 

But, in the case of a TIA, the blockage spontaneously clears itself, leading to restoration of blood flow and the outward symptoms resolving, typically within minutes. 

Sounds great, right? A stroke that heals itself! But, here’s the thing—a TIA is often an early warning signal that there are bigger problems headed down the river. Because transient ischemic attacks are known precursors to larger strokes. 

A TIA may signal a bigger issue is imminent, giving you time to seek out the vital medical attention needed to hopefully ward off a larger stroke.  

Here’s a link to a helpful short video from the American Heart Association, explaining what will occur when you visit the ER with a suspected TIA. 

What Are the Risk Factors for Strokes in Older Adults?

older man with a healthy lifestyle - showcasing how to stay risk averse to strokes

Each year, more than 795,000 Americans suffer a stroke. Because strokes involve the blood vessels, conditions that impact the heart and circulatory system are associated with increased risks for stroke. 

Some of the major factors that increase your risk of stroke include—

Stroke statistics also show women are at increased risk for stroke, but this is likely correlated to women’s longer lifespan expectancies than men. African Americans are also at increased risk for stroke, compared to caucasian people and other ethnicities. 

Your risk for stroke increases as you age. Your stroke risk doubles every 10 years once you reach the age of 55. This isn’t to say that having a stroke is a foregone conclusion, once you reach a certain age. Still, it’s helpful to be aware, so you can focus on prevention strategies and maintain contact with your healthcare team to mitigate other risk factors you may have. 

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) compiled this helpful guide that outlines the various risk factors for stroke, with explanations about each. 

What is Involved in the Prevention and Treatment of Strokes?

treatment of strokes include speech therapy

When it comes to stroke prevention, there’s actually a lot of good news. 

That’s because many of the major risk factors for stroke are within your control to manage and minimize. Choosing to make adjustments and modifications to your lifestyle can make a big impact on reducing your risks for stroke.  

While it’s true that 62% of strokes occur in those aged 65 and over, many stroke risk factors can be effectively addressed with lifestyle changes and medical interventions. 

Committing to regular physical activity, stopping smoking, controlling alcohol consumption, and eating a healthy diet can go far in reducing stroke risks. 

For medical conditions associated with stroke, working with a doctor to manage issues with medications, monitoring, or other methods can have a positive impact on risks. 

The American Stroke Association offers this helpful resource on their site, exploring the management of stroke risk factors with prevention strategies. 

If You or Someone You Love Experiences a Stroke—What Then? 

treatment for a stroke includes physical therapy

Following a stroke, a person typically stays for a time in an acute care hospital for intensive treatment. Once their condition stabilizes, they often transition into an inpatient treatment facility that offers intensive therapy and medical support. 

Once a person’s status has improved during this crucial initial recovery window, they often benefit from continued therapy and care at an inpatient facility like a skilled nursing facility. These facilities offer round-the-clock nursing care and therapy services—from physical and occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists. 

Because a stroke impacts the body and brain, all disciplines of skilled therapy are usually involved in treating and rehabilitating people post-stroke. 

In many cases, strokes cause conditions including—

Therapists work to improve stroke patients’ muscle control, strength, and range of motion. They also focus on enhancing their independence and safety with performing daily activities. They can also target the reacquisition of speech, language, cognitive, and swallowing skills. 

The precise treatment plans are tailored to the person receiving them, and depend on the type of stroke, severity and location of damage, and other individual factors. 

This article explains the various treatments offered during the stroke recovery process. 

Research shows that intensive rehabilitation delivered in the days and months following a stroke is linked with more positive outcomes and enhanced recovery in stroke survivors. 

Here’s another helpful resource, explaining the role of rehabilitation therapy in post-stroke recovery. 

If you or someone you love experiences a stroke, we hope the information in this article has improved your ability to recognize and understand the issue. 

In stroke recovery, self and family advocacy are crucial, throughout the rehabilitation and treatment process. 

Your post-stroke team members are always open to sharing information and collaborating where appropriate, especially if you plan to be an active caregiver for a loved one during their stroke recovery. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and to do your research. After all, your awareness of stroke can make all the difference when it really matters. 

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