What Is Stroke

A stroke occurs when blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or severely reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and food. Within minutes of blockage, brain cells begin to die, causing severe lasting damage such as partial paralysis, loss of sensation, or inability to speak.  Blood supply can be limited secondary to a blockage of the blood vessels, which is referred to as an ischemic stroke, or secondary to a rupture or leak of a blood vessels, which is referred to as a hemorrhagic stroke. If symptoms of the stroke resolve within 24 hours, it is referred to as a transient ischemic attack (TIA). If symptoms persist more than 24 hours, it is diagnosed as a stroke.

A quick acronym to see if you or someone you know has had a stroke is FAST:

F—Face drooping

A—Arm weakness

S—Speech difficulty

T—Time to call 911

Risk Factors For Stroke

The following factors increase your risk of stroke:

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Physical inactivity
  • Heavy or binge drinking
  • Use of illicit drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines
  • High blood pressure– stroke risk increases as blood pressure gets higher.
  • Cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep apnea
  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart failure, heart defects, heart infection or abnormal heart rhythm.
  • Age. The older you get the greater your risk.
  • Family history of stroke.
  • Race. Stroke is more common among African-Americans.

Diagnosing Stroke

If you are having a stroke, you or a loved one must call 911 immediately. An emergency team needs to evaluate the type of stroke you’re having and the areas of your brain affected by the stroke. They will need to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as a brain tumor or a drug reaction.

Your doctor may use several tests to determine your risk of stroke, including:

  • Physical examination. Your doctor will ask you or a family member what symptoms you’ve been having, when they started and what you were doing when they began. Your doctor then will evaluate whether these symptoms are still present, ask about your medications and possible head injuries, as well as your personal and family history of heart disease. Your doctor will also check your blood pressure and use a stethoscope to listen to your heart and to listen for a whooshing sound (bruit) over your neck (carotid) arteries, which may indicate atherosclerosis (a buildup of plaque in your arteries). Your doctor may also use an ophthalmoscope to check for signs of tiny cholesterol crystals or clots in the blood vessels at the back of your eyes.
  • Blood tests. You may have several blood tests, which tell your care team how fast your blood clots, whether your blood sugar is abnormally high or low, whether critical blood chemicals are out of balance, or whether you may have an infection. Care providers will manage your blood’s clotting time and levels of sugar and key chemicals as part of your stroke care.
  • Computerized tomography (CT) scan. This scan uses a series of X-rays from a variety of angles to create a detailed cross-sectional image of your brain.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test uses powerful radio waves and magnets to get hundreds of images of your brain. Unlike a CT scan, an MRI doesn’t use radiation.
  • Carotid ultrasound. Sound waves create detailed images of the inside of the carotid arteries in your neck. This test shows buildup of fatty deposits (plaques) and blood flow in your carotid arteries.
  • Cerebral angiogram. Your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube (catheter) through a small incision, usually in your groin, and guides it through your major arteries and into your carotid or vertebral artery. Then he or she injects a dye into your blood vessels to make them visible under X-ray imaging. This procedure gives a comprehensive view of arteries in your brain and neck.
  • Echocardiogram. An echocardiogram uses sound waves to create detailed images of your heart and can find a source of clots in your heart that may have traveled to your brain and caused your stroke.

Symptoms of Stroke

Symptoms of a stroke include:

  • Trouble with walking. You may stumble or experience sudden dizziness, loss of balance or loss of coordination or altered consciousness.
  • Trouble with speaking and understanding. You may experience confusion, slur your words or have difficulty understanding speech.
  • Paralysis or numbness of the face, arm or leg. You may develop sudden numbness, weakness or paralysis in your face, arm or leg, especially on one side of your body. Try to raise both your arms over your head at the same time. If one arm begins to fall, you may be having a stroke. Similarly, one side of your mouth may droop when you try to smile.
  • Trouble with seeing in one or both eyes. You may suddenly have blurred or blackened vision in one, or both eyes, or you may see double.
  • Headache. A sudden, severe headache, which may be accompanied by vomiting, dizziness or altered consciousness, may indicate a stroke.


Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Mortality rates are declining, however. Over 75% of patients survive a first stroke during the first year, and over half survive beyond 5 years.  If someone who has had a stroke gets treatment within 3- 4.5 hours from when stroke symptoms first started, rate of recovery are vastly improved.

Living With Stroke

Improving the overall health of your body and heart can help reduce your risk of future strokes.

The following are tips for a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Stop smoking. An estimated 20% of all deaths due to heart disease are directly linked to smoking.
  • Keep your blood pressure and cholesterol under control. People with high blood pressure and cholesterol are at an elevated risk for heart disease. About 50% of ischemic strokes (caused by a blockage of the artery to the brain) are caused by high blood pressure.
  • Manage your weight. About one in three American adults is obese (weighing at least 20 percent above the “suggested” weight for their height), which doubles their risk for coronary artery disease (CAD) at a given age.
  • Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise. Exercise helps the heart work more efficiently, reducing blood pressure, raising HDL cholesterol, decreasing the tendency of blood to form clots, moderating stress, helping the body use insulin, and helping people maintain a healthy weight. Sedentary people who begin a regular program of exercise reduce their risk of a heart attack by 35 to 55 percent. Low-intensity activities, such as gardening or walking, if done regularly and over the long term, can decrease the risk of heart attack. Speak with your doctor about the right routine for you.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar levels under control. People with diabetes are twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Opt for high fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as omega-3 oils such as coldwater fish and salmon), and mono- and polyunsaturated fats. But limit saturated fats and avoid trans fats, often found in fried foods, processed foods, and commercial baked goods.
  • Limit salt. The American Heart Association recently reduced the amount of salt recommended for everyone to just 1,500 mg a day, which is about two-thirds of a teaspoon.
  • Control stress
  • Tame alcohol intake. There’s a growing consensus that light to moderate alcohol consumption–that is, two drinks or less a day for a man, one drink for a woman (a drink is defined as 12 oz. of beer, 4 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits) can help prevent heart attacks. However, drinking more than that can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Educate yourself about your condition so that you can know as much as you can about heart disease. This will help ensure you are getting the best treatment available, as well as train you to recognize any potentially harmful side effects or disease progression.


Most heart diseases and risk factors contributing to heart diseases are screened for at regular physicals. The American Heart Association stresses the importance of regular screening for cardiovascular disease. American heart association volunteer and director of William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D., said on the matter, “regular cardiovascular screening is important because it helps you detect risk factors in their earliest stages. This way, you can treat the risk factor with lifestyle changes and pharmacotherapies, if appropriate, before it ultimately leads to the development of cardiovascular disease.”

Your doctor will most likely check the following:

  • Blood pressure. High blood pressure is one of the most common precursors to cardiovascular disease. If it is found early, appropriate medications can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease due to high blood pressure
  • Body mass index (BMI). A BMI of 25 or above is considered to be overweight, and a BMI above 30 indicates obesity.
  • Waist circumference. A large waist circumference is indicative of fat accumulation around the midsection, which significantly raises an individual’s risk of heart disease.
  • Diet. Your doctor will most likely ask you about your diet. If your diet is high in red meats, fats, and processed foods, he or she will most likely recommend a change to include more whole grains, fatty fish, and vegetables. A diet high in red meat, fats, and processed foods can cause high cholesterol and eventually atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
  • Exercise. Your doctor will ask about your exercise regimen and may suggest more or less activity based on the limitations of your heart and body.
  • Smoking and drug use. Your doctor will ask about smoking and drug use, which can add significantly to the risk of heart disease. If you do smoke or use drugs, your doctor will be able to help you find the right pathway to quit.
  • Heart rate/heartbeat. Your doctor will conduct a physical exam, listening to your heart beat and taking your heart rate. Some doctors may wish to perform a regular electrocardiogram (ECG), which can help detect irregularities in the heart’s electrical activity. ECGs are recommended

If your doctor suspects you have a heart disease after a thorough examination, he or she may conduct several diagnostic tests to arrive at a diagnosis.


Studies show that approximately 80% of strokes are preventable, given that preventative measures are taken early enough.

Preventative measures against stroke include:

  • Quit smoking. An estimated 20% of deaths due to heart disease in the United States are linked directly to smoking.
  • Treat any existing heart conditions. These include high cholesterol, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, and circulation issues. Untreated heart conditions greatly raise the risk of stroke.
  • Stay active. Exercise helps the heart work more efficiently, reducing blood pressure, raising HDL cholesterol, decreasing the tendency of blood to form clots, moderating stress, helping the body use insulin, and helping people maintain a healthy weight..
  • Maintain a healthy weight. About one in three American adults is obese (weighing at least 20 percent above the “suggested” weight for their height), which doubles their risk for CAD at a given age. Obesity also increases the risk for hypertension, and high blood cholesterol.
  • Avoid or control diabetes. Type 2 diabetes (non-insulin-dependent), is an important risk factor for heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, heart disease and stroke are the number one cause of death for patients with type 2 diabetes, and adults with type 2 diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease than those who do not.
  • Consider a drink a day. There’s a growing consensus that light to moderate alcohol consumption—that is, two drinks or less a day for a man, one drink for a woman (a drink is defined as 12 oz. of beer, 4 oz. of wine, or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits) can help prevent heart attacks. However, drinking more than that can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Take low-dose aspirin. The recommended regimen—a baby aspirin (81 milligrams) daily or half a regular aspirin (160 milligrams) very other day—can lower the risk of heart attack by about one-third by reducing the ability of platelets in the blood to stick together and thus form a clot. Aspirin can have side effects and isn’t right for everyone, so consult with your doctor.


After you’ve suffered a stroke you’ll probably be prescribed several medications to help prevent blood clots that can cause another stroke.

The types of medicines that prevent clotting are:

Anticoagulant medicines, or blood thinners. These reduce the chance of your getting clots in your arteries. Some anticoagulants include:

  • Warfarin (Coumadin, Jantoven)
  • Dabigatran (Pradaxa)
  • Rivaroxaban (Xarelto)
  • Heparin 

Side effects of anticoagulants include:

  • Nausea
  • Frequent nosebleeds
  • Headaches
  • Back pain
  • Easy bruising
  • Increased menstrual bleeding
  • Hair loss
  • Diarrhea

*** Because anticoagulants lengthened the time required to form a blood clot, patients taking anticoagulants are at a higher risk for excessive bleeding and hemorrhaging. Speak to your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking anticoagulants. It is especially important to take into consideration this potentially life threatening side effect.

Anti-platelet medicines, which prevent clotting. They include:

  • Clopidogrel (Plavix)
  • Prasugrel (Effient)
  • Ticagrelor (Brilinta).
  • Aspirin

Side effects of antiplatelet medications include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Rash
  • Excessive bleeding

Cholesterol-lowering drugs are also used to prevent strokes, including:  

  • Atorvastatin (Lipitor)
  • Fluvastatin (Lescol)
  • Pravastatin (Pravachol)
  • Rosuvastatin (Crestor)
  • Simvastatin (Zocor)
  • Advicor®** (lovastatin + niacin)
  • Caduet®** (atorvastatin + amlodipine)
  • Vytorin™** (simvastatin + ezetimibe).
  • Ezetimibe (Zetia®), which removes cholesterol from the intestines.

Side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs include:

  • Headache
  • Insomnia
  • Rash
  • Flushing of the skin
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping/gas
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Muscle weakness

Blood pressure medications may be prescribed if your blood pressure is too high, like:

  • Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs)
  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  • Beta-blockers
  • Calcium channel blockers
  • Diuretics


Complementary and Alternative Treatment

The following list of supplements is offered by the University of Maryland Medical Center.  Always check with your cardiologist or primary doctor before adding supplements to your regimen for treating and preventing heart failure. Many people with heart conditions take multiple medications, including blood-thinning medications, blood pressure medications, and others. The supplements below may interact with these (and other medications) and may not be right for people with certain medical conditions.

  • Magnesium is particularly important for maintaining a normal heart rhythm and is often used by physicians to treat irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). People with heart failure are often at risk for developing an arrhythmia. In addition, some diuretics (water pills) may cause your body to lose too much magnesium.
  • Carnitine. Early studies show L-carnitine supplements may reduce your chances of developing heart failure after a heart attack and improve exercise capacity if you already have heart failure.
  • Coenzyme Q-10. Several research studies suggest that CoQ10 supplements can help reduce swelling in the legs, enhance breathing by reducing fluid in the lungs, and increase exercise capacity in people with heart failure.
  • Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid (protein building block) found mainly in muscles. In a few studies of people with heart failure, injections of creatine (in addition to standard medical care) provided improvement in heart function and ability to exercise compared to those who received placebo.
  • Vitamin B1 (Thiamine may be related to heart failure in several ways. First, low levels of thiamine can contribute to the development of heart failure. On the flip side, people with severe heart failure can lose a significant amount of weight, including muscle mass (called cachexia), and become deficient in many nutrients, including thiamine. In addition, diuretics (water pills) can cause your body to lose too much thiamine..
  • Amino acids. A few small studies suggest these amino acids might be helpful for heart failure, but more research is needed:
  • Arginine (needed for the body to make nitric oxide, which helps blood flow)
  • Taurine (helps heart muscle contract)

Stress reduction practices. Since stress is associated with heart disease, it’s prudent to try techniques to help reduce it. The following methods have been shown to reduce stress in some people:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga, Tai’ Chi, and other forms of moderate exercise such as walking
  • Deep breathing
  • Visualization
  • Biofeedback

Care Guide

Having a stroke can be difficult for you and your family, but there are things you can do to make your life after a stroke easier and healthier.

  • If you smoke, quit. Tobacco has direct and damaging effects on the cardiovascular system.
  • Avoid salt. Sodium promotes fluid retention. Avoid high-sodium foods, heavily processed foods and unnecessary salt.
  • Don’t forget to take your prescribed medications. Wearing a watch with an alarm, setting your  smart phone alert, or keeping a labeled pill box on your dining table are helpful methods to remember.
  • Check other meds for potential side effects and interactions. Over-the-counter NSAIDS, such as aspirin, Motrin (ibuprofen) and Aleve (Naproxen) may increase fluid retention. Tell your doctor about any remedies you are taking.
  • Control risk factors. Work with your doctor to address high blood pressure, diabetes and atherosclerosis or other heart problems.
  • Reduce stress. The hormones released by the body in response to stress, anxiety and depression make the body work harder. Practice relaxation techniques, volunteer, and seek positive social interactions. The relaxing breath exercise can improve the oxygenation of blood and take workload off the heart.
  • Be open with your family and friends about your condition and consider joining a support group or on-line forum.

When To Contact A Doctor

You should not hesitate to call 911 if you are experiencing any of these symptoms that come on suddenly. You could be having a STROKE.

  • Numbness, tingling, weakness, or loss of movement in your face, arm, or leg, especially on only one side of your body.
  • Vision changes.
  • Trouble speaking.
  • Confusion or trouble understanding simple statements.
  • Problems with walking or balance.
  • Severe headache that is different from past headaches.

Questions For Your Doctor

In addition to your primary care physician, you may want to include an internist (specialist in internal medicine), a neurologist (nervous system specialist), a cardiologist (heart specialist) and/or a neurosurgeon (surgeon specializing in brain and spinal cord operations).

Questions For A Doctor

You will probably have different questions to ask your doctor depending on your heart condition. Be open about all your concerns. If you’re having difficulty focusing, bring along a friend or family member. Below you’ll find general questions you might want to ask your doctor about heart disease as suggested by the American Heart Association.


  • What is the name of the medicine?
  • Is this the brand or generic name?
  • What is the medicine supposed to do?
  • What happens if I miss a dose of my medicine?
  • How will I know that my medication is working?
  • What are the risks of taking this medication?
  • What are the risks of NOT taking this medication?


  • What kinds of foods should I eat?
  • What kinds of foods should I avoid?
  • Should I restrict my calories or fat intake to a certain level?
  • What are some cooking tips that I should follow?
  • What do I need to know about eating out?
  • Do I need to see a nutritionist or dietitian?
  • Are there any groups in the community that can help me with my nutrition goals?
  • How can I control the portions? How much salt may I eat?


  • Can I exercise?
  • Can I play sports?
  • What are the best types of activities for me?
  • How much activity do I need?
  • Can I have sex?


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