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A stroke occurs when a blood vessel (artery) that supplies blood to the brain bursts or is blocked by a blood clot. Within minutes, the nerve cells in that area of the brain become damaged and die. As a result, the part of the body controlled by the damaged section of the brain cannot function properly. If you have symptoms of a stroke, you need emergency care, just as if you are having a heart attack. If medical treatment begins soon after symptoms are noticed, fewer brain cells may be permanently damaged. Uncontrollable risk factors include:
- Age. The risk for stroke increases with age. The risk doubles every decade you are over 55.
- Race. African-Americans and Hispanics have a higher risk than those of other races.
- Gender. Stroke is more common in men than women. However, at older ages, more women than men have strokes. At all ages, more women than men die of stroke.
- Family history. The risk for stroke is greater if a parent, brother, or sister has had a stroke.
- Prior history of stroke. About 14% of people who have a stroke have another stroke within 1 year. Up to 25% have another stroke within 5 years.
Risk factors that you can change include some diseases. If you can control the disease, you lower your risk for stroke.
Controllable risk factors include:
- High blood pressure (hypertension). High blood pressure is the second most important stroke risk factor after age.
- Diabetes. About one-quarter of people with diabetes die of stroke. Having diabetes doubles your risk for stroke because of the circulation problems associated with the disease.
- High cholesterol. If you have high cholesterol, it can lead to coronary artery disease and heart attack, which can damage the heart muscle and increase your risk for stroke.
- Other heart conditions. Heart problems, such as atrial fibrillation, endocarditis, heart valve conditions, and cardiomyopathy, increase your risk for stroke.
- Other diseases and conditions, such as lupus, syphilis, hemophilia, pneumonia, high levels of homocysteine, and periodontal disease.
Treatment may include medication or surgery and is based on the severity of symptoms and type of stroke suffered. Just as with a heart attack, permanent damage from a stroke often develops within the first few hours. The shorter the amount of time blood flow in the brain is blocked, the less permanent damage will develop. Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
- Any signs of a stroke develop suddenly. These signs include:
- Numbness, weakness, or inability to move the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes, such as dimness, blurring, double vision, or loss of vision.
- Confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
- Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
- Severe headache with no known cause.
- You have signs of a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Symptoms are similar to those of a stroke, except:
- The loss of vision is usually described as a sensation that a shade is being pulled down over your eyes.
- TIA symptoms typically disappear after 10 to 20 minutes but may last up to 24 hours. Since there is no way to tell whether the symptoms are caused by a stroke or TIA, emergency medical care is needed for both conditions.
Call your doctor immediately if you have:
- Had recent symptoms of a TIA or stroke, even if the symptoms have disappeared.
- Had a TIA or stroke and are taking aspirin or other medications that prevent blood clotting and you notice any signs of bleeding.
- Had a stroke and have a choking episode from food going down your windpipe.
- Signs of a blood clot in a deep blood vessel, which include redness, warmth, and pain in a specific area of your arm or leg.
Call your doctor for an appointment if you:
- Think you have had a TIA in the past and have not talked with your doctor about it.
- Have had a stroke and have signs of a pressure sore. Pressure sores, which usually develop along the elbows, heels, knees, buttocks, and tailbone and on the back along the spine, are caused by staying in one position too long. The first sign of a pressure sore is a reddened area that does not go away with rubbing or massaging.
- Have had a stroke and notice that your affected arm or leg is becoming increasingly stiff or you are not able to straighten it.
- Have had a stroke and notice signs of a urinary tract infection. Signs may include fever, pain on urination, blood in urine, and low back (flank) pain.