Sometimes called a brain attack, a stroke occurs when blood to the brain stops, depriving it of oxygen and causing brain cells to die. This cell death results in lost function to whatever area of the body the affected portion of the brain controls. It is the third largest cause of death in the United States, the primary cause of disability, and affects people of all ages, gender, and race.
Although it is a disease of the brain, stroke can affect the entire body. The effects of a stroke depend on which part of the brain is injured, and how severely it is injured. The common disabling effects of a stroke are:
- Paralysis or problems controlling movement: Paralysis is one of the most common disabilities resulting from a stroke. The paralysis is usually on the side of the body opposite the side of the brain damaged by stroke. It may affect the face, an arm, a leg or the entire side of the body.
- Sensory disturbances including pain: Stroke patients sometimes lose the ability to feel touch, pain, temperature or position. Some patients experience pain, numbness or odd sensations of tingling or prickling in paralyzed or weakened limbs.
- Problems using or understanding language: Approximately one-fourth of all stroke survivors experience language impairments, involving the ability to speak, write and understand spoken and written language.
- Problems with thinking and memory: Strokes can damage those parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning and awareness. Survivors may have dramatically shortened attention spans or may experience deficits in short-term memory.
- Emotional disturbances: Clinical depression is a common emotional disorder experienced by stroke survivors.
The effects of stroke can be devastating. Life-long disability or death, however, is no longer a given because of new and modern procedures and treatments.
At MedStar Health, experts work together across our system to ensure patients receive the care they need, whether it's urgent care, brain surgery, the latest technologies for diagnostics and treatment, cutting-edge clinical trials, or rehabilitation.
Because time is of the essence in treating stroke, our emergency department teams are trained to provide rapid, excellent care by making stroke a priority. In addition, we have a rapid response team that evaluates patients and sets in motion specific procedures to diagnose the cause of the stroke.
The two major kinds of stroke are:
- Ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot, which blocks an artery feeding the brain. When the blood supply is interrupted, that portion of the brain can no longer function.. About 80 percent of all strokes are ischemic. In many individuals, stroke is preceded by transient episodes of diminished blood supply. These transient ischemic attacks provide warning of impending stroke and create an opportunity to intervene before stroke occurs.
- Hemorrhagic stroke results when a blood vessel bursts and leaks blood into the brain. A cerebral hemorrhage occurs when an artery in the brain ruptures, and blood under pressure forces itself into brain tissue. This creates a mass of blood that distorts nearby brain structures and interrupts brain function.
Stroke Risks and Prevention
Stroke is a disease that can affect anyone. However, specific traits and lifestyle behaviors can increase your risk. Knowing the risk factors and changing your lifestyle can help decrease your risk of having a stroke.
Risk factors that you cannot control include:
- Age: The risk of stroke increases with age. Two-thirds of all strokes occur in people older than 65, but an increasing number of people between the ages of 40 and 50 are having strokes.
- Gender: Men are more likely to have a stroke, but women are twice as likely to die from a stroke.
- Race: African-Americans are 1.4 times more likely to die of stroke than Caucasians.
- Family history: If an immediate family member had a stroke, your risk increases.
- History of a previous stroke or transient ischemic attack
Risk factors that you can control:
- High blood pressure
- Heavy alcohol use
- Physical inactivity and obesity
- Heart disease and atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat)
The risk for stroke increases as people age, but you can lower your risk of a stroke by adopting these healthy behaviors:
- Get your blood pressure checked regularly. Elevated blood pressure (140/90 mm Hg or higher) is a leading cause of stroke. High blood pressure makes your heart work harder to pump blood, putting added stress on the artery walls. Keeping your blood pressure under control with medication and exercise will put less strain on your blood vessels, reducing your risk.
- Quit smoking. Smoking is the most preventable cause of stroke. People who smoke double their risk of having a stroke. Talk with your doctor about smoking-cessation programs to help you quit the habit.
- Eat a low-fat diet. Eating a diet that is high in cholesterol, saturated fat and total fat can create fat deposits in the arteries. A person with a total cholesterol level between 200 mg /dL and 240 mg/dL has an increased risk of stroke. You can lower your cholesterol level and stroke risk by adopting a diet that is low in saturated fats, low in cholesterol and high in fiber.
- Be physically active. Exercising for 30 minutes a day and reducing your intake of fat can help you maintain your desired weight and improve overall health. A lifestyle that does not include regular exercise can contribute to heart disease, which may lead to a stroke.
- Take prescribed medications properly. Medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or mini-stroke increase your risk of a stroke. Your doctor may prescribe medications to help manage these conditions.
- Do not drink alcohol excessively
If you suspect that someone is having a stroke, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does the individual have high blood pressure?
- Does he or she smoke?
- Is the individual overweight or obese?
- Does he or she get regular physical activity (at least 30 minutes on most or all days)?
- Does he or she have diabetes?
- Is there a family history of stroke?
Then think FAST.
- Face: Ask the individual to smile. An inability to smile or one-sided expression could indicate a stroke.
- Arms: Ask the individual to raise both arms. One-sided muscle weakness or paralysis may indicate a stroke.
- Speech: Ask the individual to say a simple sentence. Slurred speech or difficulty speaking are also signs of stroke.
- Time: Call 911. Reduce the time for receiving medical attention. Delay in receiving medical attention may increase the possibility of permanent damage or death.
Other signs and symptoms of stroke to look for:
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden severe headache with no known
- Sudden confusion or trouble understanding
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
Learn about stroke treatments.
Make an Appointment
- Andrew B. Stemer, MD, Medical Director of MedStar Georgetown Stroke Program
- Douglas J. Mayson, MD
- Matthew A. Edwardson, MD
- Rakesh Jaitly, MD
- Benjamin Osborne, MD
- Peter Turkeltaub, MD, PhD
- Colleen Dudley, RN