A cerebrovascular accident is the medical term for a stroke. A stroke is when blood flow to a part of your brain is stopped either by a blockage or a rupture of a blood vessel. There are important signs of a stroke that you should be aware of and watch out for. If you think that you or someone around you might be having a stroke, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. The more quickly you get treatment, the better the prognosis. When a stroke goes untreated for too long, there can be permanent brain damage.
There are two main types of cerebrovascular accident, or stroke. An ischemic stroke is caused by a blockage, and a hemorrhagic stroke is caused by a breakage in a blood vessel. In both cases, part of the brain is deprived of blood and oxygen, causing the brain’s cells to die.
An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel, preventing blood and oxygen from getting to a part of the brain. There are two ways that this can happen. When a clot forms somewhere else in your body and gets lodged in a brain blood vessel, it is called an embolic stroke. When the clot forms in the brain blood vessel, it is called a thrombotic stroke.
A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel ruptures, or hemorrhages, which then prevents blood from getting to part of the brain. The hemorrhage may occur in a blood vessel in the brain, or in the membrane that surrounds the brain.
The quicker you can get a diagnosis and treatment for a stroke, the better your prognosis will be. For this reason, it is important to understand and recognize the symptoms of a stroke.
- difficulty walking
- loss of balance and coordination
- difficulty speaking or understanding others who are speaking
- numbness or paralysis in the face, leg, or arm, most likely on just one side of the body
- blurred or darkened vision
- a sudden headache, especially when accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or dizziness
The symptoms of a stroke can vary depending on the individual and where in the brain it has happened. Symptoms usually appear suddenly, even if they are not very severe. They may become worse over time.
Your doctor can tell if you have had a stroke in a number of ways. First, you will be examined. Your doctor will check your reflexes, vision, speaking, and senses. He or she will also check for a particular sound in the blood vessels of your neck. This sound, which is called a bruit, indicates abnormal blood flow. Finally, your doctor will check your blood pressure, which may be high if you have had a stroke.
Your doctor may also perform diagnostic tests to confirm a stroke and to pinpoint its location:
- Blood tests: Your doctor may want to test your blood for clotting time, blood sugar levels, or infection. These can all affect the likelihood and progression of a stroke.
- Angiogram: By adding a dye to your blood and then taking an X-ray of your head, your doctor can find the blocked or hemorrhaged blood vessel.
- Carotid ultrasound: Using sound waves to image the blood vessels in your neck helps to determine if there is abnormal blood flow towards your brain.
- Computed tomography (CT) scan: A CT scan is often performed soon after symptoms of a stroke develop to find the problem area or other problems that might rule out a stroke.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): MRIs can also be used to check for damaged blood vessels.
- Echocardiogram: This imaging technique uses sound waves to create a picture of your heart. It can help to find the source of blood clots.
Treatment for a stroke depends on the type. In the case of an ischemic stroke, the goal is to remove the blockage. In the case of a hemorrhagic stroke, treatments are aimed at controlling the bleeding.
To treat an ischemic stroke, you may be given a clot-dissolving drug or a blood thinner. You may also be given aspirin to prevent a second stroke. In some cases, emergency treatment may include injecting medicine into the brain or removing a blockage with surgery.
For a hemorrhagic stroke, you may be given a drug that lowers the pressure in your brain caused by the bleeding. You may also need surgery, if the bleeding is severe, to remove excess blood. You may also need surgery to repair the ruptured blood vessel.
After any type of stroke, there is a recovery period that varies depending on how severe the stroke was. You may need to participate in rehabilitation because of the effects of the stroke. This can include speech therapy, occupational therapy, or work with a psychiatrist, neurologist, or other professionals.
There are many risk factors for having a stroke. Correspondingly, there are many measures that can be taken to help prevent them. These preventive measures are similar to the actions that you would take to help prevent heart disease, and include the following:
- maintain normal blood pressure
- lmit saturated fat and cholesterol intake
- refrain from smoking and drink alcohol in moderation
- control diabetes
- maintain a healthy weight
- get regular exercise
- eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits
If your doctor knows that you are at risk for a stroke, you may be prescribed medications to prevent one. These include drugs that thin the blood and prevent clot formation.
If you suffer from a stroke, your prognosis depends on the type of stroke, how much damage it causes to your brain, and how quickly you are able to receive treatment. The prognosis after an ischemic stroke is better than after a hemorrhagic stroke.
Common complications resulting from a stroke include difficulty speaking, moving, or thinking. These can improve over the weeks, months, and even years after a stroke. Approximately half of all stroke patients are able to go home and function without help, while the other half requires care (NIH, 2012).
Written by: Mary Ellen Ellis
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA