Understanding Stroke

Stroke, also known as a cerebrovascular accident, occurs when the flow of blood to the brain is impeded. Types of stroke include thrombotic stroke and embolic stroke. An emoblic stroke is also known as a cerebral embolism and happens when a blood clot breaks away from one part of the body, and travels to the brain. Conversely, a thrombotic stroke is one that forms in a narrow artery and obstructs the flow of blood. Stroke causes and risk factors include diabetes, heart rhythm disturbances such as atrial fibrillation, family history of stroke, increasing age and high cholesterol. In addition, those who have existing heart disease or diminished peripheral blood flow may also be at risk for a stroke. Other stroke causes can include obesity, poor dietary habits, smoking, excessive drinking and taking cocaine or other illicit drugs.

Signs of stroke include problems with movement, feeling, vision, speaking and comprehending. Symptoms of a stroke may include a severe, sudden headache, especially when lying flat or changing position, or if the headache causes the person to be awakened from his sleep. Other stroke symptoms might include difficulty swallowing, losing control of the bowels or bladder, alterations in hearing or taste, memory loss and confusion. Trouble speaking, facial or eyelid drooping, drooling or trouble walking may also signal a stroke.

Stroke signs

The patient who is suspected of having a stroke will undergo diagnostic testing which might include a CT scan or MRI of the brain, an angiogram, a carotid artery duplex test, which is an ultrasound procedure that shows if the carotid arteries are blocked or narrowed, and an echocardiogram. The echocardiogram is a heart test that also uses ultrasound technology to image the heart and surrounding blood vessels. An electrocardiogram will also be taken to determine if an irregular heartbeat is present. Laboratory tests that can help the physician determine the location, type and cause of the stroke may include blood clotting testing, a bleeding time blood test, serum glucose testing and a complete blood count.

Although not always possible, there may be ways to prevent a stroke, or ways to change risk factors. These include not smoking, controlling cholesterol with diet, exercise and if needed, medication, managing high blood pressure, treating diabetes and getting adequate exercise. In addition, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages, avoiding illegal drugs such as cocaine and discussing the use of birth control pills with the health care provider. Birth control pills may increase the risk of blood clots, leading to stroke.  This risk factor, however, is more likely to occur in women who smoke, and those above the age of 35.