By Aparna Mani, MD, PhD
MGH Medical Walk-In Unit
It’s thought that the medical term stroke comes from ancient Greek for ‘struck down’. This meaning makes sense when you think of what happens when someone suffers the symptoms of a stroke. They may experience sudden weakness, numbness or paralysis of the face, arms or legs, a sudden loss of vision, difficulty speaking or an inability to understand speech. Our brains are responsible for all of these specialized, unique functions. Blood vessels carry oxygen-rich blood and glucose to the brain cells, powering them to do this work. With a stroke, there is a sudden block in the flow of blood through the arteries that supply blood to the brain.
This sudden ‘block’ in flow most commonly happens due to a clot getting stuck in an artery, or bleeding of the artery itself. When this happens, the blood flow is interrupted, and the cells in the affected area of the brain don’t get the oxygen and glucose that they need to function. If the blockage clears and blood flow resumes within a very short period of time, the patient may have had a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or ‘mini-stroke. If, however, blood flow does not resume for a longer period of time, the brain cells will start to die. A person suffering a stroke will show symptoms based on the specific portion of the brain that has bad blood flow. Emergency care is required for both strokes and TIAs. Doctors may use a CT scan or MRI to get an image of the brain to assess someone who has symptoms of a stroke. Depending on the time that has elapsed since symptoms began, doctors may be able to intervene and restore good blood flow to the brain.
Risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure, smoking, high cholesterol, family history of stroke, age, obesity and diabetes. Stroke prevention begins with a discussion of your personal risk factors with your doctor. By recognizing these personal risk factors you and your doctor can come up with strategies for lifestyle changes and medications to reduce your risk for stroke.
Strokes can have serious consequences and can lead to permanent brain damage, long-term disability and death. In fact, Strokes are one of the leading causes of death in the United States today. Know the signs: watch out for sudden weakness, numbness, paralysis, and difficulty with speech or vision. If you or someone you know has any symptoms of a stroke, Call 9-1-1 immediately. With fast treatment, it may be possible to avoid the long-term consequences of a stroke. Remember, time is of the essence and every minute counts.