Understanding Stroke: Diagnosis and Treatment

Your brain is the most important organ in your body—it regulates and coordinates functions that keep you alive and well. When it doesn’t get enough oxygen, you’re at risk of having a stroke. This is a potentially life-threatening disease that needs immediate medical attention.


Close to 800,000 people in the U.S. suffer a stroke every year. Considering this, it is vital to know the symptoms of stroke. There’s only between 3 and 4 1/2 hours to treat an acute stroke and restore the blood supply to the brain. So, quick thinking and fast action may decrease brain damage and save a life.

It’s time to learn all you can about stroke to better understand how you can prevent, spot, and treat it should it happen to you.

Symptoms of Stroke

A stroke is also called a cerebrovascular accident or, more fittingly, a “brain attack.” It can affect the entire body, and symptoms of stroke include:

Speech impairment: You slur your words and find it difficult to understand what those around you are saying.

Numbness or paralysis: One side of your body can become numb, weak, or paralyzed suddenly. When you raise both your arms over your head simultaneously, and one arm falls because you don’t have the strength to keep it raised, it may be a sign that you’re having a stroke. A slight droop on the side of your mouth is also a common sign.

Trouble seeing: Blurred or blacked out visual field in one or both eyes. Seeing double is also a cause for concern.

Headache: A severe headache that can go together with vomiting and dizziness.

Loss of balance: You may lose coordination and find yourself stumbling all over.

Other symptoms also appear suddenly and include:

• Weakness
• Fainting
• Irritation
• Shortness of breath
• Hallucinations
• Behavioral changes
• Seizures
• Hiccups

Types of Stroke

The two main causes of stroke are a blocked artery or a blood vessel that is leaking or bursting. The former is called ischemic stroke, and the latter hemorrhagic stroke. Another type is a ministroke, also called a transient ischemic attack (TIA).

The type of stroke you have determines the course of treatment needed.

Ischemic Stroke

When the arteries which supply blood to the brain narrow or get blocked, it causes an ischemic stroke. Eighty-seven percent of strokes are ischemic strokes.

Thrombotic and embolic strokes are the two most common of this type of stroke. A thrombotic stroke is where a blood clot forms in an artery that supplies blood to the

In the case of an embolic stroke, a blood clot or debris from somewhere else in the body—usually from the heart, upper chest, or neck—travels to the brain and causesblockage.

Hemorrhagic Stroke

This type of stroke isn’t very common. It happens when weak blood vessels rupture and bleed into the brain and surroundings. As the blood accumulates, it puts pressure on brain tissue.

The result is intracerebral (inside the brain) hemorrhage or subarachnoid (the space in which major brain blood vessels pass) hemorrhage. The two leading causes of hemorrhagic stroke are high blood pressure and trauma.


Although a TIA isn’t life-threatening, it shouldn’t be ignored. It’s usually caused by a temporary blood clot or decreased blood flow and has the same symptoms as a full stroke, but they don’t last long.

Without treatment, you are likely to have a major stroke within a year. Ten to fifteen percent of people who have had a TIA experience a full stroke in as little as three months.

How to Diagnose Stroke

When you arrive at the hospital, the emergency team will attempt to establish what type of stroke you’re having.

Some of the tests they will do include:

• A physical exam
• Blood tests
• Computerized tomography (CT) scan
• Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
• Carotid ultrasound
• Cerebral angiogram

Treatment for Stroke

Once it is determined what type of stroke is present, doctors can start treatment. For an ischemic stroke, the main goal is to restore blood flow to the brain quickly.

Doctors may use:

Blood-thinning medication that will break up any clots. The standard treatment is an IV injection of recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) given in the first three hours after stroke.

Endovascular procedures are also used to treat ischemic strokes inside the blocked
blood vessel. The process involves:

• Delivering tPA directly to the brain by inserting a catheter into an artery in your groin; or

• using a stent retriever to remove the clot from the blocked vessel.

Doctors may recommend you undergo another procedure to decrease your risk of a second stroke or a TIA. Options available include a carotid endarterectomy where plaque is removed from the carotid arteries or an angioplasty and stents to help keep open narrowed arteries.

When it comes to hemorrhagic stroke, the focus is on controlling the bleeding and reducing the pressure in your brain.

Treatment includes:

• Surgery to extract the blood.
• Surgical clipping of an aneurysm.
• Coiling or endovascular embolization that helps stop bleeding.
• Stereotactic radiosurgery in which focused radiation is used to repair any
malformations of blood vessels.

Final Thoughts

Knowing the symptoms of stroke can be the difference between life and death. You can
use the term ‘FAST’ to help you spot the most common symptoms of stroke.

Face droop.
Arm weakness.
Time to act.

It’s important to seek medical treatment immediately for an acute stroke because blood thinners and clot-dissolving medication must be given within 3 to 4 hours of stroke onset. So, think FAST and get emergency medical treatment right away.


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