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What is a Stroke, and Can It Be Prevented?

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What is a Stroke?

Stroke is a disease that affects the blood vessels in your brain. Those vessels, called arteries, carry oxygen and other key nutrients to your brain. And when an artery ruptures or a clot blocks blood flow, you can have a stroke.

“During a stroke, your brain isn’t getting the oxygen it needs,” says Zeguang Ren, MD, PhD, of AdventHealth Tampa. “And without oxygen, brain cells die quickly. Even if a blockage lasts for only a few short minutes in some situations, it can cause life-long disability. That’s why acting quickly is so vital to survival — and remaining independent — after a stroke.”

A stroke is a medical emergency, which means you need to call 911 right away if you or someone near you shows signs. If treatment is delayed, stroke survivors often have trouble walking, eating and speaking.

Warning Signs and How to B.E. F.A.S.T.

A good first step is recognizing stroke warning signs. The American Stroke Association recommends: B.E. F.A.S.T. as an easy acronym to remember:

Balance loss

Eyesight problems

Face drooping
Arm weakness
Speech difficulty
Time to call 911

It’s also important to know stroke symptoms in women can be different than stroke symptoms in men.

Types of Stroke

There are three main types of stroke, and each requires different treatment.

Hemorrhagic Stroke

When an artery in your brain leaks or ruptures completely, it can cause a hemorrhagic stroke, also called a bleeding stroke. The sudden rush of blood adds pressure that damages brain cells and causes them to stop working. The biggest risk factor for hemorrhagic stroke is high blood pressure. But luckily, only about 12% of all strokes are hemorrhagic.

Ischemic Stroke

When blood flow is blocked to part of your brain, it’s called an ischemic stroke — the most common type of stroke accounting for about 85% of all strokes. Caused by blood clots either formed by the disease brain artery or from outside of the brain to create a blockage, ischemic strokes can be:

  • Embolic. When a blood clot forms outside the brain and travels through an artery to the brain.
  • Thrombotic. When a blood clot forms in an artery inside the brain, usually formed on the top of fatty deposits (plaque) that line the vessel walls.

If you arrive at the hospital in time, a medication called alteplase can be given through an IV to help dissolve the clot and improve your chances of recovery. Alteplase is the only drug treatment for ischemic strokes approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The quicker tPA is given, the sooner blood flow is restored to the brain — and that means fewer long-term effects. That’s why is so important to know the signs of stroke and seek treatment quickly.

Medication is not always working. In many cases, a surgical technique called mechanical thrombectomy is necessary to remove the clot. During this procedure, neurosurgeons place a catheter through an artery in the groin up to the blocked artery in your brain.

“If you arrive in time, we have great treatment options for stroke,” says Dr. Ren. “However, the medication and the surgical intervention must be done within hours of the first stroke symptoms to get the best results, so it’s critical to get medical help right away.”

Transient Ischemic Attack, or TIA Stroke

A transient ischemic attack (also known as a TIA or a mini-stroke) happens when a temporary clot prevents proper blood flow to the brain. The symptoms of TIA usually spontaneously recover in less than 24 hours. Fortunately, most TIAs don’t cause any permanent damage.

“A TIA gives you a big warning sign that you’re at risk for a major stroke,” says Dr. Ren. “It serves as an important reminder that lifestyle changes may be needed to maintain your health. If you have a stroke, your doctor will create a personalized plan for your immediate recovery and also advise you on how to prevent another one.”

Preventing Your Next Stroke

One in every four strokes occurs in someone who has had a stroke before. While you can’t change certain risk factors like age, gender, race and family history, you can heed any early warning signs — and take steps to decrease your risk.

Most strokes are preventable with good lifestyle habits, including:

  • Avoiding tobacco
  • Controlling diabetes
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Maintaining good heart health
  • Taking all medication as prescribed
  • Watching your numbers (weight, blood pressure and cholesterol)

“Other possible causes of stroke are irregular heartbeat, hardening of the arteries and blood clotting disorders. Regular visits to your doctor will help identify any of these issues so you know your risk of stroke,” says Dr. Ren. “If you have a stroke, finding the cause and identifying any risk factors for a secondary stroke are important parts of your treatment.”

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About Dr. Ren

Zeguang Ren, MD, PhD
Zeguang Ren, MD, PhD

Zeguang Ren, MD is a board-certified vascular and endovascular neurosurgeon. He has authored numerous publications, book chapters, and abstracts, and has presented this work at national meetings nationwide. Dr. Ren continues to lecture on various topics in his field also serves as Adjunctive leading scientist, China National Clinical Research Center for Neurological Diseases, Beijing Tiantan Hospital, Beijing, China. He is actively engaged in many national and international clinical research on stroke and other brain vascular disease.

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