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Stroke health centre

Stroke - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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A stroke is a serious medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.

Strokes are a medical emergency and prompt treatment is essential because the sooner a person receives treatment for a stroke, the less damage is likely to happen.

If you suspect that you or someone else is having a stroke, phone 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.

The main symptoms of stroke can be remembered with the word FAST: Face-Arms-Speech-Time.

  • Face  the face may have dropped on one side, the person may not be able to smile or their mouth or eye may have dropped
  • Arms  - the person with suspected stroke may not be able to lift one or both arms and keep them there because of arm weakness or numbness
  • Speech  their speech may be slurred or garbled, or the person may not be able to talk at all despite appearing to be awake
  • Time  it is time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms

Read more about the symptoms of stroke.

Why do strokes happen?

Like all organs, the brain needs the oxygen and nutrients provided by blood to function properly. If the supply of blood is restricted or stopped, brain cells begin to die. This can lead to brain damage and possibly death.

Types of stroke

There are two main causes of strokes:

  • ischaemic (accounting for over 80% of all cases) - the blood supply is stopped due to a blood clot 
  • haemorrhagic - a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts and causes brain damage

There is also a related condition known as a transient ischaemic attack (TIA), where the supply of blood to the brain is temporarily interrupted, causing a 'mini-stroke'. TIAs should be treated seriously as they are often a warning sign that a stroke is coming.

Who is at risk from stroke?

In England, strokes are a major health problem. Every year over 150,000 people have a stroke and it is the third largest cause of death, after heart disease and cancer. The brain damage caused by strokes means that they are the largest cause of adult disability in the UK.

People over 65 years of age are most at risk from having strokes, although 25% of strokes occur in people who are under 65. It is also possible for children to have strokes.

If you are south Asian, African or Caribbean, your risk of stroke is higher. This is partly because of a predisposition (a natural tendency) to developing diabetes and heart disease, which are two conditions that can cause strokes.

Smoking, being overweight, lack of exercise and a poor diet are also risk factors for stroke. Also, conditions that affect the circulation of the blood, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) and diabetes, increase your risk of having a stroke.

Read more about the causes of stroke.

Treating a stroke

Treatment depends on the type of stroke you have, including which part of the brain was affected and what caused it.

Most often, strokes are treated with medicines. This generally includes drugs to prevent and remove blood clots, reduce blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels.

In some cases, surgery may be required. This is to clear fatty deposits in your arteries or to repair the damage caused by a haemorrhagic stroke.

Read more about treating stroke.

Life after a stroke

The damage caused by a stroke can be widespread and long-lasting. Some people need to have a long period of rehabilitation before they can recover their former independence, while many will never fully recover.

The process of rehabilitation will be specific to you, and will depend on your symptoms and how severe they are. A team of specialists are available to help, including physiotherapists, psychologists, occupational therapists, speech therapists and specialist nurses and doctors.

The damage that a stroke causes to your brain can impact on many aspects of your life and wellbeing, and depending on your individual circumstances, you may require a number of different treatment and rehabilitation methods.

Read more about recovering from a stroke.

Can strokes be prevented?

Strokes can usually be prevented through a healthy lifestyle. Eating a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, drinking alcohol in moderation and not smoking will dramatically reduce your risk of having a stroke. Lowering high blood pressure and cholesterol levels with medication also lowers the risk of stroke substantially.

Read more about preventing stroke.

Medical Review: August 27, 2012
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