A stroke is a serious medical condition that occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off.
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.
Strokes are a medical emergency and prompt treatment is essential. The sooner a person receives treatment for a stroke, the less damage of brain cells is likely to happen.
The main symptoms of stroke can be remembered with the word FAST:
- Face – the face may have dropped on one side.
- Arms – the person may not be able to lift one or both arms.
- Speech – their speech may be slurred or garbled.
- Time – if you suspect that you or someone else is having a stroke, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.
Smoking, being overweight, lack of exercise and a poor diet are also risk factors for stroke. Conditions that affect the circulation of the blood, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) and diabetes, also increase your risk of having a stroke.
Source: NHS Choices, UK (Stroke)
Different treatment is required for each type of stroke so a rapid diagnosis will make treatment more straightforward.
Strokes are usually diagnosed by studying images of the brain (brain imaging) and carrying out physical tests.
Your doctor may check for the causes of your stroke by taking blood tests to determine your cholesterol and blood sugar levels, checking your pulse for an irregular heartbeat and taking a blood pressure measurement.
Even if the physical symptoms of a stroke are obvious, brain imaging should also be carried out to determine:
- if the stroke has been caused by a blocked artery or burst blood vessel
- which part of the brain has been affected
- how severe the stroke is
- the risk of a transient ischaemic attack (mini-stroke).
Two common methods used for brain imaging are a computer tomography (CT) scan and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. The type of scan you may have depends on your symptoms.
Source: NHS Choices, UK (Diagnosing stroke)
Strokes can cause weakness or paralysis in one side of the body. Many people also have problems with co-ordination and balance, and suffer from extreme tiredness (fatigue) in the first few weeks after a stroke. They may also have difficulty sleeping, making them even more tired.
As part of your rehabilitation you should be seen by a physiotherapist who will assess the extent of any physical disability before drawing up a treatment plan.
Physiotherapy will normally begin as soon as your medical condition has stabilised. At first, your physiotherapist will work with you by setting goals to improve your posture and balance. As your condition improves, more demanding long-term goals, such as standing or walking, will be set.
A careworker or carer, such as a member of your family, will be encouraged to become involved in your physiotherapy. The physiotherapist can teach you both simple exercises you can carry out at home.
Physiotherapy can sometimes last months or even years.
Source: NHS Choices, UK (Recovering from stroke)
Facts & figures
- Older people are more likely to have a stroke: 80% of Australians who have had a stroke are 60 years or over, although 25% of strokes occur in people who are under 65.
- It is possible for children to have strokes.
- Falls in death rates from cerebrovascular disease (mostly stroke) have occurred in Australia since the 1970s. Age-standardised cerebrovascular disease death rates fell by 37% in males and 32% in females between 1996 and 2006.
- There were 34,476 hospitalisations in 2006-07 due to strokes.
- There were 8,484 deaths in 2006 from strokes.
- More women than men have a stroke and die from it.