Health A to Z

Stroke

Learn the warning signs of a stroke - and what to do if you experience them - in this overview.

Stroke causes, symptoms, and treatments

A stroke is a sudden loss of brain function caused when the brain is deprived of oxygen. It can lead to a loss of brain function, potentially affecting a person’s ability to see, move, speak, reason, read or write. A Canadian has a stroke every ten minutes, according to the March of Dimes. It is the number one cause of disability in Canada and the third cause of death.

Stroke causes An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot interrupts the flow of blood to the brain; about 80 percent of strokes are ischemic. A transient ischemic stroke, or mini stroke, is caused by a temporary interruption of blood flow to the brain by a blocked artery. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when the blood vessels in the brain rupture or leak. These cause the brain cells in and around the stroke area to die. Aging increases the risk of stroke, and postmenopausal women are at higher risk. A family history and previous history of stroke also increase the risk. Stroke is also associated with high blood pressure and smoking.

Stroke symptoms The five warning signs of a stroke are: weakness — sudden loss of strength or numbness; difficulty speaking; sudden vision problems; sudden severe headache; and dizziness or loss of balance.

Stroke diagnosis/tests To diagnose a stroke, a physician will do a physical examination, checking your blood pressure and listening to your heart. She’ll do blood tests to check how quickly your blood clots and if your blood sugar is high or low. Brain imaging, or a CT scan will give doctors a look at the blood vessels in your brain and neck to check for aneurysms or hemmorrhages. There are many other imaging tests that may be involved to help your doctor confirm the diagnosis, including an MRI to detect damaged brain tissue and echocardiography to see if a clot has travelled to your brain from your hear, causing a stroke.

Stroke treatment Getting immediate medical attention can improve the chances of survival and recovery from a stroke.  If the stroke caused by a blood clot, clot-busting medication can be administered. Other medications to treat a stroke include aspirin, blood thinners, and cholesterol and blood pressure medications. Sometimes surgery is needed to remove blood clots, repair blood vessels or remove plaque from the carotid artery.

Stroke prevention You may have risk factors for a stroke, such as a family history, that you can’t control, however there are some steps you can take today to lower your risk:

• Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels.

• Maintain a healthy body weight and exercise to ward off obesity, stress and diabetes.

• Don’t smoke and limit alcohol to one to two drinks a day.

Outside resources
Heart and Stroke Foundation
March of Dimes Canada

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