A stroke (also called a cerebrovascular accident) occurs when brain tissue is deprived of its blood supply. A stroke is the equivalent of a heart attack, but in the brain. Strokes can result from a blockage of blood flow to the brain (called an ischemic stroke) or from a ruptured blood vessel that bleeds into the brain (called a hemorrhagic stroke). Damage to the brain from a stroke begins within seconds of the interruption in blood flow.

About 80 percent of all strokes are ischemic strokes that result from a blockage in a blood vessel in the neck or the brain. Ischemic strokes can cause severe disability. There are three ways that blood flow can be blocked in an artery leading to the brain: when a clot forms inside the blood vessel (called cerebral thrombosis), when a clot travels from another part of the body and becomes lodged in a blood vessel (called cerebral embolism), or when an artery becomes severely narrowed (called stenosis).

Hemorrhagic strokes can result from rupture of an aneurysm (a weak, thin blood vessel wall); from changes in small arteries resulting from high blood pressure or diabetes; or, less commonly, from an arteriovenous malformation (see "Other Neurological Disorders," page 341). When the bleeding occurs within the brain itself, the stroke is classified as an intracerebral hemorrhage. If the bleeding occurs within the membranes between the brain and the skull, it is called a subarachnoid hemorrhage.

Sometimes blood flow to the brain is diminished or blocked for just a few minutes. This temporary cutoff of blood is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). The symptoms of a TIA clear up quickly. Just as angina indicates an increased risk for heart attack, a TIA is a warning sign for a future stroke. Familiarize yourself with the following warning signs of stroke.

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