A stroke—or brain attack—occurs when blood flow to the brain gets disrupted. Disruption in blood flow is caused when either a blood clot blocks one of the vital blood vessels in the brain (ischemic stroke), or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, spilling blood into surrounding tissues (hemorrhagic stroke).
The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients to properly function. Even a brief interruption in blood supply can cause serious problems, as brain cells begin to die after just a few minutes without blood or oxygen. A loss of brain function occurs with brain cell death. When this happens, symptoms of a stroke may include impaired ability with movement, speech, thinking and memory, bowel and bladder, eating, emotional control and other vital body functions. Recovery from stroke and the specific ability affected depends on the size and location of the stroke. A small stroke may result in problems such as weakness in an arm or leg, whereas larger strokes may cause paralysis (inability to move part of the body), loss of speech or even death.
A stroke occurs when a blood clot limits the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain or when a blood vessel bursts or leaks. A blood clot can have many causes, including poor diet, smoking or excessive alcohol use. A blood vessel can burst due to conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure, which can damage or weaken the arteries and make them more susceptible to rupturing.
The two most common types of stroke are ischemic and hemorrhagic. Each type of stroke has a different cause:
A number of factors can contribute to your risk of having a stroke. Risk factors that can be controlled through lifestyle changes or medical treatment include:
Other risk factors for stroke that can't be controlled include:
Signs of a stroke may be sudden—although they could be either mild stroke symptoms or aggressive—and include:
All of the above warning signs may not occur with each stroke, so do not ignore any of these symptoms. Even if the symptoms go away, take action immediately.
Other, less common, symptoms of stroke may include the following:
The signs for ischemic stroke symptoms and hemorrhagic stroke symptoms can be similar but there can also be slight differences. Those experiencing an ischemic stroke may have numbness or weakness on one side of the body or face and difficulty with balance, vision and speaking. Often a key hemorrhagic stroke symptom is a sudden and severe headache, which doesn't always occur in other types of strokes.
The risk of stroke increases with age. Because women generally live longer than men, more women experience strokes. While the main symptoms of a stroke in women are the same as in men, women more commonly report these symptoms of a stroke:
Time matters for a patient suffering a stroke. Get immediate medical attention at the first sign or symptom of a stroke, even if the symptoms appear to fade. The FAST acronym can help you tell if someone may be experiencing a stroke:
A healthcare provider will conduct a physical exam as part of diagnosing a potential stroke. From there, doctors can use imaging tests to measure blood flow in the brain. Those tests include:
There are several options for treating a stroke. The best stroke treatment will depend on the patient’s age, health and medical history as well as the severity, location, cause and type of stroke. In some cases, surgery may be necessary. Several types of stroke surgery may be performed to help treat a stroke, or to help prevent a stroke from occurring. Those surgeries include:
Surgical stroke treatment options may differ based on the type of stroke. Ischemic stroke treatment clears the blockage, which can be done via endovascular surgeries. In a hemorrhagic stroke, surgeons may need to relieve the pressure on the brain and repair the blood vessel.
Stroke treatment may also include medications, both in an emergency setting and following initial stroke treatment. Drugs that can break up blood clots, such as a recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (TSA), are a common ischemic stroke treatment. In the case of a hemorrhagic stroke, patients may be prescribed medicines to thin the blood or lower blood pressure.
For patients who suffer a stroke, specialists at our Center for Cerebrovascular Diseases deliver rapid, accurate and advanced assessment and treatment. A stroke is an emergency, and the greatest chance for recovery from stroke occurs when treatment is started immediately.
This video animation demonstrates a mechanical thrombectomy for revascularization to remove a blood clot in the brain. Quick medical treatment to remove the clot is critical to prevent ischemic stroke. Learn more about the Center for Cerebrovascular Diseases.
Stroke recovery starts with recuperation from any emergency procedures followed by stroke rehabilitation. After a stroke, the patient is closely monitored until the emergency portion of the stroke has passed. A healthcare team will assess the impact of the stroke, which may have damaged brain tissue and require rehabilitation. Stroke recovery usually goes through seven stages as patients gradually recover motor skills and normal brain function. A patient's stroke rehabilitation program is
based on their individual needs and abilities and can include range of motion exercises, sensory reeducation, mirror therapy and complex movement exercises.
A patient's best opportunity to prevent a stroke comes in controlling risk factors for stroke. Key changes to the way a patient lives can help, at least in part, prevent a stroke. They include:
The sudden or severe onset of any stroke warning signs should prompt immediate emergency medical attention. They include:
The timetable for how long a stroke can last varies greatly. Some stroke episodes—or brain attacks—last minutes, others hours and some can last days. The sooner a patient gets medical attention, the better the chance of survival and recovery.
The damage a stroke can have on a brain can be life-threatening. Brain damage, sometimes serious, is considered permanent following a stroke.
Patients who have suffered one stroke are susceptible to another. In an average year, nearly 25% of people who suffered one stroke experience a second. Medical treatment and lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of multiple strokes.
For over a century, a leader in patient care, medical education and research, with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery.