Understanding Stroke

Each year, an estimated 600,000 Americans experience a new or recurrent stroke. Specifically, men are at greater risk than women, but more women have fatal strokes.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is suddenly interrupted or a blood vessel in the brain bursts, spilling blood into the spaces surrounding the vessels. A stroke may bring weakness or paralysis to parts of the body and can result in problems with vision and speech, as well as fear, confusion and disorientation.

The blockage of, or hemmorage from, the blood vessels to the brain that occurs during a stroke can cause either temporary or permanent brain damage. In either case, rehabilitation is of the utmost imortance to the recovery of the stroke survivor as it is designed to help him or her return to independent living.


  • One side of the body may be affected by stroke - usually the one opposite to the side of the brain affected.
  • Remember to stand at the person's "good" side.
  • Inability to speak well does not mean an inability to understand or loss of mental capacity.
  • The way a person acts, looks and feels immediately following a stroke is no indication of how the person will act, look or feel later.
  • A person who has had a stroke may tire easily, show frustration and anger suddenly or feel depressed at times. The person may cry or laugh unexpectedly and be unable to remember well or pay attention very long.
  • It is important to be casual, courteous and respectful if the person cries, acts depressed or swears. He/She may not be aware the behavior they are exhibiting is inappropriate. Alarm, embarrassment or fear will aggravate the behavior.
  • Use simple words when talking to a stroke survivor and the same words or instructions when asking him or her to do the same thing. Be sympathetic, but always encouraging. Instead of pity, give the person reassurance that they are loved and useful.
  • Remember that despite the changes, the stroke survivor is the same individual you knew before the stroke occurred.
  • Treat adults as adults, not children.

Primary Means of Rehabilitation

  • Physical therapy: Helps restore gross-motor function and relieve pain, prevent disability and promote healing
  • Occupational therapy: Helps stroke survivors relearn skills for independent, everyday living
  • Speech language pathology: Teaches methods for coping with impairment of speech and language skills, memory loss and other "thought" problems caused by stroke
  • Drugs that prevent new blood clots from forming
  • Treatment to help breathing and blood circulation
  • A low-salt, low-fat, low cholesterol diet to help prevent a recurrent stroke

Warning Signs

See your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following, even for a few seconds or minutes:

  • Sudden difficulty in talking or understanding others
  • Weakness or numbness in the face, arm or leg or one side of the body
  • Sudden visual disturbance or temporary blindness in one or both eyes
  • Impaired balance or coordination
  • Sudden drowsiness, dizziness, falls or confusion
  • Severe headache

Risk Factors

  • Increasing age
  • Some risk factors exist for women that don't for men: women's risk of high blood pressure and stroke increases during pregnancy and after menopause
  • Family history
  • Prior stroke or transient ischemic attacks (TIA's)
  • Cigarette smoking, uncontrolled high blood pressure or heart disease and the factors that cause it: obesity, inactivity, etc.
  • Diabetes
  • Atherosclerosis ("hardening of the arteries")
  • High red blood cell count
  • Excessive alcohol intake or certain types of drug abuse
  • Race: African-Americans are significantly more likely to have an ischemic stroke and much more likely to die from it.

Medical Terms to Understand

Aphasia: A partial or total loss of the ability to use words. A stroke can cause aphasia if it damages the brain's language center. Some people recover quickly and completely; others may have permanent speech and language problems.

Ischemic Stroke: The blocking of a blood vessel in the brain, usually by a piece of clot floating in the blood stream. This type accounts for 80 percent of strokes, affecting mostly older people.

TIA: Transient ischemic attacks, ""warning strokes," happen when a blood clot clogs an artery for a short time. They can happen before a stroke and have the same symptoms.

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