When the blood supply is cut off from reaching certain parts of your brain, certain brain cells may become damaged or die. The brain is not receiving the oxygen and nutrients the blood delivers. This leads to a stroke. A stroke is a medical emergency that needs immediate medical attention. It is not a continuous condition that you live with but an occurrence that MUST be immediately acted upon. 

The quicker a person receives medical treatment when having a stroke, the less damage is likely to happen. If you suspect that you or someone else if having a stroke, it is crucial to call 999 immediately and require an ambulance.  

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

Identifying the signs of an occurring stroke requires you to act F.A.S.T: 

  • Facial weakness: Are they able to smile or have their eye and/or mouth drooped? 
  • Arm weakness: Can they raise their arms without assistance? 
  • Speech problems: Are they slurring their words? Can you understand them?  
  • Time: It’s time to call 999 if you observe these symptoms. Don’t waste time making sure it is a stroke. If you observe these symptoms, waiting one minute to call 999 may be the difference between life and death.  

Other symptoms may include dizziness, confusion, severe headache, blurred or lost vision, and sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body. 

Causes of a Stroke

As with any organ, the brain requires oxygen and nutrients from blood to function properly. When blood supply is restricted, brain cells begin to die which can lead to a brain injury, disability or fatality.

The two main causes of strokes are:

Haemorrhagic Strokes

When a blood vessel ruptures, causing a bleed inside the brain, it causes a haemorrhagic stroke. The ruptured blood vessel affects all the surrounding cells, causing damage and death of the cells.

Ischaemic Strokes
These types of strokes happen when a blood clot blocks the blood flow in an artery that supplies blood to the brain. The artery may have already narrowed before the appearance of a blood clot, so the appearance of a clot cuts off the blood supply completely.

There are also, mini strokes which occur when there is a brief blockage to the brain.

Mini Strokes
Also known as transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs), occur when a brief reduction in blood flow to the brain causes symptoms such as temporary speech loss. Symptoms usually pass within 24 hours and one occurrence doesn’t lead to permanent damage in your brain. People may experience several different TIAs throughout time, and different parts of the brain can be affected, resulting in different symptoms being visible. It is difficult to tell the difference between these mild strokes and an actual stroke, so always call 999.

Who is affected by strokes?

In the UK, someone suffers a stroke every 5 minutes. There does not seem to be a specific demographic for who will have a stroke, though men tend to have strokes more often than women. There are also certain risk factors. These are factors that can increase your likelihood of having a stroke, which include:  

  • People who have angina, heart diseases, or heart attacks are more likely to have a stroke. 
  • Irregular heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation are likely to cause blood clots that can travel to your brain, causing a stroke.  
  • Uncontrolled diabetes 
  • Smoking 
  • High cholesterol 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Age: As we age, our arteries can become narrower, increasing the chances of a blood clot.

Diagnosing Strokes

Often strokes are diagnosed by doing a physical test such as a brain scan. Doctors and medical staff need to find out as much as they can about your symptoms as possible.  

To confirm a stroke diagnosis and determine the cause there are a few different tests which can be performed, these include: 

  • A blood test to assess your cholesterol and blood sugar levels  
  • Checking your pulse for an irregular heartbeat 
  • Having a blood pressure measurement taken 

Brain Scans 

In instances where there are physical symptoms of a person who has had a stroke, a brain scan is recommended. This is to determine the following: 

  • Understand if the stroke has been caused by an artery blockage or a burst blood vessel  
  • Which part of the brain has been affected 
  • The severity of the stroke  

Those with a suspected stroke should have a brain scan within an hour of arriving at a hospital. Early brain scans are important for those who: 

  • May benefit from taking medicine that clears blood clots 
  • Are already taking medication to clear blood clots 
  • Have lower levels of consciousness  

Recovering From a Stroke

Following the immediate medical services, recovery may take months, or even years. Some symptoms that those who have had a stroke may continue to suffer from include: 

  • Muscle weakness 
  • Partial paralysis 
  • Problems with stamina 
  • Spasticity (stiff and tight muscles) 
  • Drop foot (tendency to trip because the toe muscles don’t lift themselves properly) 
  • Issues with balance 
  • Issues with swallowing 
  • Difficulty controlling bladder and bowel movements (these tend to fade quickly during recovery) 
  • Pain from muscle weakness 
  • Headaches 
  • Inability to smell, taste, and see as well as you did before 

Full recovery is possible, with the most progress being shown in the first few months after the stroke. After that, progress slows. Having a stroke increases your chances of developing other conditions, such as vascular dementia, a condition caused by stroke damage in a part of the brain that affects thinking and memory. 

Managing Strokes

Immediate management for strokes requires hospital treatments. Following that, living your life in as normal a way as possible after having a stroke is helped by:

  • Physiotherapy: Some motor and muscular functions may be affected and targeted exercises will help return them to normal. They may also help with pain from muscle weakness.
  • Occupational therapy: It may be necessary for you to rethink how you handle daily living activities and an occupational therapist will help you find easier and safer ways to do this.
  • Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES): These small electrical pulses can help ease Drop Foot.

FAQs About Strokes

Some of the most asked questions regarding strokes, and their answers, can be found here:

Can stress cause a stroke?
Indirectly, yes. Stress can lead to high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke.

How do you prevent strokes?
Lifestyle changes such as eating healthy, exercising, quitting smoking, and drinking in moderation reduce the risk. Taking care of current medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure also reduces your risk of having a stroke.

Can your personality change after a stroke?
Emotional and behavioural changes are often seen in people who have experienced a stroke. Survivors may also feel anxiety and depression.

Further Advice and Support

For more information regarding strokes and resources near you in the UK, please refer to the following websites: 

  • Bhf.org - For information about any type of condition that affects the heart, visit the British Heart Foundation. The page linked here provides information about how strokes are caused and what treatments are available. It also offers links for receiving or giving support.  
  • Stroke.org - This site is dedicated solely to providing information about everything involved with strokes, including causes, types, treatments, and symptoms. It provides a number for a helpline, as well as other resources for help.
  • NHS.uk - A useful for learning about many different medical conditions, NHS tends to be very detailed while remaining easy to understand. The page linked here provides information about strokes as well as offering assistance finding services near you.