Symptoms and causes

Watch for these signs and symptoms if you think you or someone else may be having a stroke. Note when your signs and symptoms begin, because the length of time they have been present may guide your treatment decisions:

  • Trouble with speaking and understanding. You may experience confusion. You may slur your words or have difficulty understanding speech.
  • Paralysis or numbness of the face, arm or leg. You may develop sudden numbness, weakness or paralysis in your face, arm or leg, especially on one side of your body. Try to raise both your arms over your head at the same time. If one arm begins to fall, you may be having a stroke. Similarly, one side of your mouth may droop when you try to smile.
  • Trouble with seeing in one or both eyes. You may suddenly have blurred or blackened vision in one or both eyes, or you may see double.
  • Headache. A sudden, severe headache, which may be accompanied by vomiting, dizziness or altered consciousness, may indicate you're having a stroke.
  • Trouble with walking. You may stumble or experience sudden dizziness, loss of balance or loss of coordination.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to your brain is interrupted or reduced. This deprives your brain of oxygen and nutrients, which can cause your brain cells to die.

A stroke may be caused by a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or the leaking or bursting of a blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke). Some people may experience only a temporary disruption of blood flow to their brain (transient ischemic attack, or TIA).

Transient ischemic attack (TIA)

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) — also known as a ministroke — is a brief period of symptoms similar to those you'd have in a stroke. A temporary decrease in blood supply to part of your brain causes TIAs, which often last less than five minutes.

Like an ischemic stroke, a TIA occurs when a clot or debris blocks blood flow to part of your brain. A TIA doesn't leave lasting symptoms because the blockage is temporary.

Seek emergency care even if your symptoms seem to clear up. Having a TIA puts you at greater risk of having a full-blown stroke, causing permanent damage later. If you've had a TIA, it means there's likely a partially blocked or narrowed artery leading to your brain or a clot source in the heart.

It's not possible to tell if you're having a stroke or a TIA based only on your symptoms. Up to half of people whose symptoms appear to go away actually have had a stroke causing brain damage.

Many factors can increase your risk of a stroke. Some factors can also increase your chances of having a heart attack. Potentially treatable stroke risk factors include:

A stroke can sometimes cause temporary or permanent disabilities, depending on how long the brain lacks blood flow and which part was affected. Complications may include:

  • Paralysis or loss of muscle movement. You may become paralyzed on one side of your body, or lose control of certain muscles, such as those on one side of your face or one arm. Physical therapy may help you return to activities hampered by paralysis, such as walking, eating and dressing.
  • Difficulty talking or swallowing. A stroke may cause you to have less control over the way the muscles in your mouth and throat move, making it difficult for you to talk clearly (dysarthria), swallow or eat (dysphagia). You also may have difficulty with language (aphasia), including speaking or understanding speech, reading or writing. Therapy with a speech and language pathologist may help.
  • Memory loss or thinking difficulties. Many people who have had strokes experience some memory loss. Others may have difficulty thinking, making judgments, reasoning and understanding concepts.
  • Emotional problems. People who have had strokes may have more difficulty controlling their emotions, or they may develop depression.
  • Pain. People who have had strokes may have pain, numbness or other strange sensations in parts of their bodies affected by stroke. For example, if a stroke causes you to lose feeling in your left arm, you may develop an uncomfortable tingling sensation in that arm.

    People also may be sensitive to temperature changes, especially extreme cold after a stroke. This complication is known as central stroke pain or central pain syndrome. This condition generally develops several weeks after a stroke, and it may improve over time. But because the pain is caused by a problem in your brain, rather than a physical injury, there are few treatments.

  • Changes in behavior and self-care ability. People who have had strokes may become more withdrawn and less social or more impulsive. They may need help with grooming and daily chores.

As with any brain injury, the success of treating these complications will vary from person to person.

Aug. 15, 2017
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