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How to identify, treat and prevent strokes

Elspeth McAusland of The Stroke Association describes the symptoms and causes of strokes, and measures to take to prevent them.

Every year in the UK 150,000 people have a stroke. It is the UK’s third most common cause of death and is the leading cause of adult disability. Although anyone can have a stroke at any age, the majority of people affected are over 65.

A stroke is a brain attack that happens when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off. Without a blood supply the brain cells can be damaged or die.

There are two main causes of stroke, the most common being caused by a blockage. This is called an ischaemic stroke which happens when a clot blocks an artery that carries blood to the brain.

The second type of stroke is a haemorrhagic stroke which is caused by a bleed.

A stroke is a medical emergency, if you spot someone having a stroke you need to call 999. The symptoms of a stroke can be easily identified by using the FAST test:

Facial weakness – can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye dropped?
Arm weakness – can the person raise both arms?
Speech problems – can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
Time – if you spot one or more of these symptoms, call 999.

Stroke is a medical emergency because the sooner someone gets treatment, the better their chance of recovery.

Once the type of stroke has been diagnosed, medication may be used to help.

There is a clot-busting treatment called thrombolysis that can be used to treat some people. However, this must be given within three hours from the onset of symptoms, so it is crucial that people get to hospital quickly.  

A transient ischaemic attack (TIA) is often called a 'mini-stroke' or mild stroke. This happens when the brain’s blood supply is interrupted for a very brief time.

The symptoms are similar to those of a stroke but they are temporary – lasting a few minutes or hours and then disappearing within 24 hours.

A TIA must not be ignored. It is a warning sign that there is a risk of a more serious stroke in the future.

Get medical help as soon as you can so treatment can be given to prevent another TIA or stroke.

Because a stroke is a brain injury, the effects will depend on what part of the brain is affected.

Every stroke is different and people who have a stroke are affected in different ways.

There are many problems that a stroke survivor may face. Some of these will improve over time as the brain recovers. In severe cases, they may cause long-term disability.

A stroke can cause loss of control over body functions and paralysis is the most common. It usually happens on one side of the body.

It is also common for mental processes like thinking, feeling and learning to be affected following a stroke.

Many people experience problems with speaking and understanding, and with reading and writing. This is called aphasia.

Preventing strokes

Stroke is preventable. Over 40 per cent of all strokes could be prevented through the control of high blood pressure.

In 2006, 39 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women in England had high blood pressure, but many aren’t getting treatment.

It is essential that people get their blood pressure checked regularly by their GP.

Lifestyle changes can also help reduce the risk of stroke. By eating healthily, drinking alcohol in moderation, not smoking and being active can all help to reduce the risk of stroke. Research has shown that eating foods high in potassium, and cutting down salt intake, reduces the risk of strokes.

A stroke can be a frightening experience for the person affected and their family. Recovery is complex and most people need the support of a range of professionals, including doctors, nurses, therapists, psychologists and social workers.

The Stroke Association

The Stroke Association offers support and advice to stroke survivors and their families. Services available include Family and Carer support, Communication support, Stroke clubs and carers’ groups.

The Stroke Association’s Stroke Information Service can help with information, practical advice and support. They can put stroke survivors and their families in touch with useful people, organisations and groups in their area. They can also advise on what financial and practical help is available.

You can call the Stroke Helpline on 0845 3033 100 or email info@stroke.org.uk. Alternatively The Stroke Association’s website has more information.

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