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Stroke health centre

Stroke, emergency care - What is a stroke?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

Introduction

Strokes tend to happen without warning and should always be treated as an emergency. Getting the right treatment quickly can help you make a good recovery.

We've brought together the best research about strokes and weighed up the evidence about how to treat them. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you. If you've had a stroke and want to find out how you can help prevent another, see Stroke prevention.

A stroke is an emergency. A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of your brain is cut off. This can cause brain damage. The earlier you are treated, the better your chance of making a good recovery.

If your brain cells don't have a supply of blood, they won't get enough food and oxygen. If they go without food and oxygen for too long, brain cells can die. That's why some doctors call a stroke a brain attack.[1]

Strokes affect people in different ways. If you have a stroke, you may not be able to move one side of your body, or you may have difficulty speaking or swallowing. You may black out (lose consciousness) for a while. Or you may feel dizzy and have blurred vision for a few minutes. You should get medical help straight away, even if you think your symptoms aren't serious.

In most people who have a stroke, the blood supply to their brain is blocked by a blood clot. But a stroke can also happen when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.

If you or someone close to you has just had a stroke, you will probably be shocked and worried about the future. Many people worry that a stroke will leave them disabled and they will have to depend on others to care for them. This may be true for some people, but it's certainly not true for everyone. With the right treatment and follow-up care, it's possible to make a good recovery from a stroke. If you follow your treatment carefully, you can live for many years afterwards.

Strokes tend to happen without warning. They can happen at any age, although they are more common in older people.

Key points for people who have had a stroke

  • A stroke is an emergency. If you think you are having a stroke, or someone you know is having a stroke, you should call 999 straight away. You need to get to hospital as soon as possible. The sooner you get treatment, the better your chances of recovering are.

  • The symptoms of a stroke can include sudden numbness or weakness (especially on one side of the body), sudden confusion or trouble speaking, sudden problems seeing, sudden dizziness, loss of balance or trouble walking, or a sudden, severe headache for no reason.

  • If you're treated in a specialised stroke unit, you'll probably make a better recovery than if you're treated in an ordinary hospital ward.

  • The symptoms you have in the first few days after a stroke may not last forever. If your symptoms are going to improve, they usually do so in the first two months after you have a stroke.

  • Your symptoms are less likely to change after six months, but many people learn to adapt to life after a stroke.

  • Many people feel depressed after having a stroke. Some people may need treatment for depression, but it usually goes away within six months to a year.

  • Physiotherapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychologists, and dietitians can help people adapt to life after a stroke.

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Last Updated: July 05, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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