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What is a stroke?

Updated: Mar 14

This article aims to provide you with a basic understanding of what a stroke is, the different types of strokes, along with common symptoms, and consequences.


Written by Grace James MSc.

 

What is a stroke?


A stroke describes the interruption of sufficient oxygen flow to the brain. This is classed as a life-threatening medical condition because our brain cells require high levels of oxygen in order to carry our its functions adequately.


There are two main types of stroke:


  • Ischaemic Stroke


An ischaemic stroke is the most common type of stroke, accounting for around 75% of cases. It essentially means there is a blockage in blood vessels which restricts oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain. There are two ways in which this may happen. Firstly, a blood clot may develop in a vessel already located in the brain (cerebral thrombosis). Alternatively, a blood clot may develop in another part of the body and travel up to a vessel in the brain (cerebral embolism).


A subtype of ischaemic stroke includes a transient ischaemic attack (TIA), more commonly known as a 'mini stroke'. This describes a temporary or brief blockage of arteries, usually under two minutes. As oxygen is restored quickly there is a lower risk of damage to the brain. However, TIAs are often seen as a warning sign that a full stroke could happen in the near future and can encourage individuals to seek medical treatment or lifestyle changes that may lessen the chance of this occurring.


  • Haemorrhage Stroke


A haemorrhagic stroke is less common, making up around 15% of cases. Essential, a haemorrhagic stroke describes a bleed to the brain. This can happen when a blood vessel tears or ruptures, causing a bleed in the brain.


One type of haemorrhagic stroke includes a cerebral aneurysm. This is where a weakened vessel starts 'ballooning' and eventually ruptures.


 

Causes


Identifying the cause of a stroke can be complex and sometimes, there is no known cause. However, here are some potential causes:


  • Genetics and family history

  • Heart problems, such as atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart rhythm)

  • High blood pressure

  • Poor diet, smoking, substance and alcohol use

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Type two diabetes

  • Previous stroke history


It is also important to note that just because you have one of these things, such as a heart condition, it does not mean you will definitely have a stroke. If you are concerned, please reach out to your doctor.


 

Initial symptoms of a stroke


As the longer you tend to leave a stroke, the more damage can happen in the brain, it is essential to become familiar with symptoms of a stroke so the individual can receive emergency treatment quickly.


The three main symptoms include:

  • Facial drooping on one side

  • Weakness, numbness, or tingling (usually on one side of the body)

  • Slurred speech


Other possible symptoms include:

  • Blurred or double vision

  • Sudden, intense headache

  • Dizziness and balance problems


It is important that if you experience any of these symptoms to call the emergency services as soon as possible.

 

 

Consequences


Unfortunately, stroke is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. As mentioned earlier, our brains require high levels of oxygen in order to carry out functions sufficiently and keep brain cells alive. Therefore, any disruption to this oxygen flow can cause brain cells to become damaged or die.


Given the amount of tasks our brains are responsible for, we see a wide range of consequences. However, the table below provides some examples:

Physical

Emotional

Cognitive

Communication

You may have difficulty walking or weight bearing

You may feel low or anxious

You may have difficulties with sustaining attention, or remembering information

Words may not be clear or you may have difficulty finding the right words

You may have difficulty feeling or moving your arm

You may become tearful for no apparent reason

You may become disorientated to place, time person

You may find it difficult to understand what people are saying to you.


Interestingly, the consequences we see are highly dependent on the location of damage in the brain. For example, if damage occurs in the frontal lobe (at the front of the brain, near your forehead) we may see consequences like impulsivity, or disinhibition (where the individual has difficulty withholding a thought or behaviour). Whereas if damage occurs in the temporal lobe (at the bottom of your brain) we may expect to see some memory difficulties, such as forgetting what someone had said to you earlier in the day.


However, it is important to note that while looking at where the damage in the brain has occurred can give us some ideas, every brain injury is different so it is essential to take things on a case-by-case basis.


 

What next?


I hope this article has provided you with an understanding of what a stroke is. I often find that stroke survivors and their families have minimal understanding of their stroke diagnosis, either because it is not explained to them effectively, or they are not in a place to take this information in because of the high stress situation. This is understandable, however, it can be reassuring for people to understand their diagnosis once they are in the right head space for it.


Keep your eye out for more articles that delve into what may happen next, such as a period of rehabilitation to improve lasting consequences of stroke, or ways of preventing a further stroke such as making lifestyle changes.


We also have published stories from stroke survivors that you may be interested in. See our story section for more information.

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