A stroke is kind of a strange word for a health problem. You probably think of a stroke as something good. You might stroke your dog's fur. Or maybe someone has told you: "That's a stroke of good luck." But if someone has a stroke it means something has stopped the normal blood flow to the brain. Strokes usually happen to older people, like grandparents. Kids don't typically get them.
Blood is circulating through your body all the time in tubes called arteries and veins. Usually, these blood vessels work fine and there's no problem. That's important because blood carries oxygen to all the cells in your body. And without oxygen, the cells would die.
A stroke can happen if something keeps the blood from flowing as it should. A person might have a clogged blood vessel, so the blood can't get through. Or a blood vessel may burst and a part of the brain is suddenly flooded with blood. Either way, with a stroke, brain cells die because they don't get the oxygen they need.
There are two main types of strokes:
- Ischemic (say: iss-kee-mik) strokes happen when a blood vessel going to the brain becomes blocked, and the blood can't get where it's supposed to be. This type of stroke is the most common. A blood clot — a clump of blood that sticks together — is usually to blame for ischemic strokes. They can also happen when arteries become narrow and clogged with plaque. Plaque is a mix of cholesterol and other fatty stuff that sticks to the walls of blood vessels.
- Hemorrhagic (say: heh-muh-rah-jik) strokes happen when a weak or thin blood vessel bursts and the blood spills out, killing brain cells and affecting how the brain works. High blood pressure can weaken the walls of vessels and make a hemorrhagic stroke much more likely.
There are also "mini strokes" called transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). These are not full-blown stokes because the blood flow is only cut off for a short amount of time and they don't cause the same kind of damage right away, however, they are a warning sign that something is wrong and that a real stroke may be on its way.
Strokes are serious. People who have strokes can get really sick, have brain damage, or die. But many people recover from strokes, especially if they know the warning signs and can get help quickly.
What Happens During a Stroke?
A stroke usually happens suddenly, and a person having a stroke has several of these signs:
- numbness or weakness on one side of the body
- a very bad headache
- loss of balance or coordination
- trouble talking or understanding what people are saying
- trouble seeing
Anyone who has even one of these symptoms should get to the hospital right away. The first thing a doctor will do is make sure the person is not in immediate danger, like making sure he or she can breathe. Next, the doctor will want to figure out what's causing this problem. The doctor can run tests on the heart and brain.
If it looks like a stroke, doctors usually get a CT scan, a special kind of X-ray of the brain. This test can show the doctor what part of the brain has been affected and how big the stroke is.
How Does a Person Get Better?
Recovering from a stroke can happen quickly or can take a long time. How soon someone gets better depends on how bad the stroke was and how healthy the person was before the stroke.
People who have had a stroke may need medicine or surgery. Later, they may need rehabilitation (say: ree-huh-bih-luh-tay-shun). Treatment for a stroke will depend on what caused it.
Medicine: For a stroke caused by a clogged blood vessel (ischemic), the doctor might give the person medicine that thins the blood and keeps it from clotting too much. There's even "clot-busting" medicine that can break up a blood clot. This medicine is given through an IV and works best if it is given very quickly.
Surgery: Doctors may do surgery to open up a clogged blood vessel to help prevent another stroke later on. If a person has had a hemorrhagic stroke, surgery may be needed to remove blood clots or fix weak blood vessels.
Rehabilitation: Rehabilitation, or rehab, means the person needs to relearn basic things, like walking, talking, writing, or taking care of themselves. They may need speech therapy, physical therapy, or occupational therapy.
If Someone You Love Has a Stroke
It can be scary if someone you care about has a stroke. But strokes can be big or small. A small one may not cause too much damage and the person may get back to normal quickly.
But a major stroke can cause big problems with important stuff, like walking and talking. With a major stroke, the person may spend a lot of time in the hospital. Once the person is home, he or she may need special care, therapy, medicine, and a lot of doctor visits. In some cases, the person may have lasting problems with important skills, like walking or talking.
But often, people are able to relearn the important skills they lost. It may take time and patience, though. So if you know someone who has had a stroke, encourage them to keep on doing the hard work necessary to regain these skills.
It's also important for you to talk with someone if you have questions or worries about someone who has had a stroke. You might feel sad, frustrated, or angry that this happened to someone you love, especially if this person isn't able to do stuff with you like before. It's also normal for the person who had a stroke to feel frustrated and upset, especially if he or she has to learn something as basic as feeding himself or herself. It can make the person feel less independent.
Some strokes can be prevented in adults. Here are some stroke-prevention tips for grown-ups:
- Don't smoke.
- Don't drink too much alcohol.
- Eat healthy and be active. This can help lower cholesterol.
- Check blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major cause of stroke.
- Don't ignore problems like heart disease, high cholesterol, or diabetes.
What can kids do? Live healthy from an early age. Don't start smoking, eat healthy, and be an active kid!
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: October 2008
Originally reviewed by: Marcy E. Yonker, MD