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Act FAST! What Happens During a Stroke

Cheryl Lathrop

Last updated: November 22, 2016 3:14 pm

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Every year, more than 795,000 Americans have a stroke. Stroke kills almost 130,000 Americans each year (1 in every 19 deaths). One American dies from stroke every 4 minutes. Stroke costs the US an estimated $36.5 billion each year. Do I have your attention yet? 1 2 3

What happens during a stroke?

When you have an “ischemic stroke”, the blood that carries oxygen to your brain is blocked. Without oxygen, those brain cells deprived of oxygen start to die after a few minutes. Sudden bleeding in your brain can cause a “hemorrhagic stroke”—the bleeding causes swelling of the brain and increased pressure in the skull, which damages brain cells and tissues.

What causes a stroke?

In atherosclerosis, plaque, a fatty substance, builds up on the inner walls of your arteries, then hardens and narrows your arteries, which restricts your blood flow. A blood clot or piece of plaque can break away, travel through the bloodstream, get stuck in one of the brain’s arteries, stop the blood flow, and damage brain cells. High blood pressure and aneurysms (a balloon-like bulge in an artery) can cause the sudden bleeding of a hemorrhagic stroke.

What’s the result of a stroke?

When brain cells die during a stroke, abilities controlled by that area of the brain are lost. These abilities can include speech, movement, and memory. How you are affected depends on where the stroke occurs in your brain and how much of your brain was damaged.

Who’s at risk for a stroke?

The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to have a stroke: 4 high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol, obesity, stress, depression, diet, alcohol, drugs. You can treat or control those risk factors with healthier living, but you can’t control these: age, gender, race, ethnicity, family history. And, if you’ve had one stroke, you’re at risk of having another one. See the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website for more information on risks.

What are warning signs of a stroke?

Stroke symptoms can include: 5

  • SUDDEN numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • SUDDEN confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding
  • SUDDEN trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • SUDDEN trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or coordination
  • SUDDEN severe headache with no known cause

What should you do if someone is having a stroke?

“Time Lost is Brain Lost.” Stroke is a serious medical condition that requires immediate emergency care. Brain tissue is rapidly lost as stroke progresses. So—act FAST and call 9-1-1 immediately at any sign of a stroke. 6 Do not drive to the hospital or let someone else drive. Call an ambulance so that medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment on the way to the emergency room. During a stroke, every minute counts!

  • F FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
  • A ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • S SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is speech slurred or strange?
  • T TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.

What’s the treatment for a stroke?

An artery is blocked in an ischemic stroke, so you may be prescribed a clot buster medicine to break up the clot or an antiplatelet medicine to stop platelets from clumping together to form clots. An anticoagulant (“blood thinner”) may be prescribed to keep blood clots from getting larger and to prevent new clots from forming. The blood clot may need to be removed with a device. An artery is leaking or ruptured in a hemorrhagic stroke, so surgery is usually required to repair the artery.

What’s life like after a stroke?

Joining a patient support group may help you adjust to life after a stroke. Time to recover varies—weeks, months, or even years. Some recover fully, while others have long-term or lifelong disabilities. Ongoing care and emotional support helps. Rehabilitation (rehab) involves working with speech, physical, and occupational therapists to restore function. Lifestyle changes can help recovery and may help prevent another stroke. If you had an ischemic stroke, you may need to continue to take anticoagulants (e.g., Warfarin, Pradaxa, Xarelto).

  1. Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Blaha MJ, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2014 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2014 ;128. 

  2. Kochanek KD, Xu JQ, Murphy SL, Miniño AM, Kung HC. Deaths: final data for 2009. Nat Vital Stat Rep. 2011;60(3). 

  3. http://www.cdc.gov/stroke/facts.htm 

  4. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/stroke/atrisk.html 

  5. http://support.stroke.org/acute_site/having-stroke/symptoms.html 

  6. http://support.stroke.org/acute_site/having-stroke/