There are various conditions that threaten our physical, mental and emotional wellness. A stroke is one such example. It can be a serious event in a person’s life that can result in serious trauma and even permanent injury. However, this all depends on the timing with which we identify a stroke and get efficient emergency care. The key is to know the signs and what to do about them, which is what this guide will teach. You will also get introduced to Jill Bolte Taylor, an inspirational stroke survivor.
Did you know that stroke is the 3rd leading cause of death in both the United States and Canada? On average, someone in Canada has a stroke every 10 minutes and every 40 seconds in the United States. Stroke is also the leading cause of serious, long-term disability and it affects more women than men.
A stroke is definitely not a light matter in any way. While most people dread the thought of a stroke and its usually debilitating effects, most of us do not know what exactly is a stroke and how to properly handle it. The majority of the time it is completely within our power to both prevent a stroke, as well as to prevent or decrease the destructive effects that a stroke can have. This is rooted in our personal lifestyle and dietary habits, as well as our understanding of the topic.
What is a Stroke?
Our brain is a magnificent structure that to this day remains poorly understood, even in light of all of our breathtaking at times, modern science. When it comes to understanding strokes, we know that our brain just like all other parts of our body, depends on a continuous supply of blood flow and gas exchange. Arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to the brain and veins carry oxygen-depleted blood back down from the brain. Each artery supplies specific areas of the brain, but some areas are supplied by more than one artery.
A stroke is a sudden loss of function in some part of the brain due to an interruption of blood flow, or rupture of a blood vessel that supplies that area of the brain with blood. Hence, it almost always involves arteries. It can also be called a brain attack since the blood supply to the brain is disrupted just as the blood supply to the heart is disrupted in the event of a heart attack.
Strokes are divided into 2 categories:
1. Ischemic Stroke
An ischemic stroke is caused due to an interruption of blood flow to the brain, usually due to a blood clot. About 80% of strokes are of this nature in Canada, 87% in the US.
The blockage in an ischemic stroke either results from a plaque fragment that has broken off of an artery that had these deposits and/or from a blood clot. If the blood clot or plaque breaks up and dissolves quickly, blood flow is restored and no permanent brain damage is sustained.
Ischemic strokes can be thromboembolic strokes. These occur when a blood clot forms within an artery that supplies blood to the brain or a plaque fragment or blood clot travels to one of these arteries. If a nearby artery cannot deliver enough fresh blood to the brain, parts of the brain begin to die and some body functions are lost.
Thrombotic strokes are when the clot forms directly in the artery leading to the brain. Embolic strokes are when the clot or plaque fragment comes from somewhere else in the body to an artery supplying blood to the brain.
An ischemic stroke can be full blown, as described above or it can be a mini-stroke, which is also called a Transient Ischemic Attack or TIA.
A TIA occurs when an artery leading to the brain or in the brain becomes blocked temporarily. This can slow or stop the flow of blood to a part of the brain. The symptoms of a TIA are usually temporary, last minutes and do not cause any long term, negative effects.
2. Hemorrhagic Stroke
A hemorrhagic stroke is caused by the rupture of a blood vessel. It is also sometimes known as a cerebral hemorrhage. About 20% of strokes are of this nature in Canada, 13% in the US.
These usually occur from long-term high blood pressure, which can greatly weaken blood vessels in the brain. Continued high-blood pressure can cause small blood vessels to bulge, at the points of weakness, and eventually burst. This is known as an aneurysm. When this occurs, blood spills into the brain and damages brain cells. The damaged area cannot function properly.
A cerebral hemorrhage can be either a subarachnoid hemorrhage or an intracerebral hemorrhage.
The subarachnoid type occurs when blood from a ruptured artery (aneurysm) bleeds into the space between the two membranes on the surface of the brain. This bleeding can increase pressure in and on the brain, injuring brain cells and altering brain function. The intracerebral type occurs when an artery deep within the brain ruptures.
What are the Signs of a Stroke?
According to the National Institute of Health, the following are signs of a stroke to look for or be aware of, in yourself and others:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body)
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
If at any point any of these symptoms are experienced by you or someone else, it is critical to call 911 immediately, as the key to surviving a stroke and not suffering any permanent damage lies in acting quickly. The shorter the amount of time that the blood supply to the brain is disrupted, the smaller the chances of any permanent injury.
How is a Stroke Diagnosed?
In many cases, a stroke exhibits obvious physical and external signs that are quick and easy to diagnose. In some cases however, especially when a stroke is very mild, it is not that easy to diagnose, unless thorough tests are conducted.
No matter what, if you or someone you know has a stroke or is suspected of having a stroke, they should always be taken in for a thorough brain scan to examine what areas of the brain may be affected and how.
Arteriography is a technique where a dye is injected into the arteries of the brain. This then shows up on x-ray pictures called arteriograms, or angiograms. These pictures can be used to locate abnormal or blocked blood vessels in the brain.
What are the Effects of a Stroke?
The effects of a stroke are very diverse and depend on the following factors:
- The type of stroke someone has
- The amount of time that the blood supply was cut off from the brain
- The amount and type of damage that the brain sustained
The effects can be as mild as temporarily losing vision, speech and/or motor function or as debilitating as permanently losing critical brain function, which can also result in full or partial paralysis. If care is not given in a short enough amount of time, a stroke can also be deadly if the brain undergoes too much damage.
The most profound effects of a stroke depend on which half of the brain was damaged.
If a stroke occurred that affected the left side of the brain, it is felt through the right side of the body, as the left hemisphere controls the motor and sensory functions of the right side of the body. The effects usually include problems with speech, logic and mathematical thinking and problem solving, as well as paralysis or weakness to the right side of the body.
If a stroke occurred that affected the right side of the brain, it is felt through the left side of the body, as the right hemisphere controls the motor and sensory functions of the left side of the body. The effects here usually include problems deciphering things of a spatial nature, vision, reading maps, impaired judgment, memory and critical thinking skills, as well as paralysis or weakness to the left side of the body.
In many cases rehabilitation can restore some, if not all functions that were damaged. In severe cases life-long paralysis occurs.
According to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, of every 100 people who have a stroke:
- 15 die (15%)
- 10 recover completely (10%)
- 25 recover with a minor impairment or disability (25%)
- 40 are left with a moderate to severe impairment (40%)
- 10 are so severely disabled they require long-term care (10%)
So what can you do? A lot in fact. Despite what it may seem like to some, strokes are not random, isolated events. Rather they are the accumulation of years of damage, stress, inferior dietary habits and system imbalances. The good news is that today we know a lot about strokes and how much we can do to prevent them, or greatly decrease the chances of experiencing one.
Follow-up to learn more about your role in stroke prevention by reading the 10 Guidelines to Prevent a Stroke Naturally essay which I wrote to help empower you.
Although having a stroke is a serious matter, it does not in any way mean that it is a death sentence or have to result in permanent disability. One very inspirational story to learn from and understand the many sides of the stroke experience come from Jill Bolte Taylor. Jill was a successful, hard working neuroanatomist, when she woke up one morning to very odd symptoms that she tried to deny. It was 1996 and she was 37 years old, when she suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. It turned out that Jill had a clot the size of a golf ball. She lost her ability to speak, think, and function for the most part. Fast forward 11 years and after some intensive therapy, her passion for life and knowledge of the brain, she was rehabilitated to regain completely normal functions of her brain and body.
Today however, Jill no longer leads a stress-filled life. She has written a book entitled My Stroke of Insight to inspire others about the value of life and finding bliss no matter what. She has been on Oprah and also named one of Time Magazines most influential people of 2008. Learn more about Jill Bolte Taylor by reading her story and the impact of her life changing stroke. She could have used her stroke as a tragedy, something to wallow in or feel like a victim about. She could have felt sorry for herself for the rest of her life, but Jill did not do that. She seized the moment, she awakened to the lesson and today she lives a life based on bliss, creativity and present moment awareness, and tries to teach others how to have the same, without needing to go through what she went through.
Our health and happiness truly is in our hands and minds. How we choose to think and live, how we choose to nourish ourselves and interact with others all has a tremendous impact on our health, happiness and well-being. May you continue learning and expanding your consciousness to further empower yourself on this, and many topics like it and create the most desired results for your life.
Here are some resources for more information about Stroke Awareness: