A stroke occurs when essential nutrients and oxygen are unable to reach your brain which causes cells within that area to die. These nutrients and oxygen are transported to the brain through arteries but if these become damaged due to high blood pressure then a stroke occurs.

What damage does high blood pressure do to the arteries of the brain?

Constant high blood pressure narrows and hardens the arteries to the brain. This restricts blood flow through them. This narrowing can lead to a blockage or rupture which prevents the brain from receiving vital energy and oxygen. As a result of this some cells within the brain deteriorate and die which manifests as a stroke. A stroke can be minor, such as a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) which is temporary or a full blown stroke which can result in permanent disability or death.

The importance of recognising the signs of a stroke

In the UK, the Department of Health has been running a series of television adverts which are designed to alert the general public to the dangers of a stroke. They show the effects of a stroke so that people will know what to look for.

These adverts have been produced in conjunction with the Stroke Association. They advise people to use the FAST formula for determining if someone has had a stroke or not.

F -Facial: has the person’s face dropped on one side

A - Arms: have the person’s arms dropped/can they raise them above their head?

S -Speech: is the person’s speech slurred?

T -Time: this means call 999 for an ambulance

(Source: Blood pressure association)

Strokes are caused by several factors but high blood pressure is the biggest risk factor.

Causes of strokes

High blood pressure is a major cause but there are others which include:

  • Age: the arteries narrow over time which is usually due to lifestyle factors e.g. smoking.
  • Transient ischaemic attack: this is a ‘mini stroke’ which usually lasts for less than 24 hours. But it is a warning of the likelihood of a full blown stroke.
  • Diabetes: high blood sugar levels can damage arteries over time which can lead to any number of health problems such as a stroke.
  • High cholesterol levels: fatty deposits can build up in the arteries which eventually lead to a blockage and a stroke.
  • Smoking: cigarette smoking causes the arteries to become ‘furred’ (clogged) which increase the risk of a stroke.
  • Atherosclerosis: build up of fatty deposits (plaques) within the arteries.

Symptoms of a stroke

See the ‘FAST’formula mentioned above. Other symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Weakness or poor co-ordination
  • Difficulty in following a conversation
  • Numbness on one side of the body
  • Confusion
  • Drooping eyelid
  • Altered senses e.g. taste, touch and sight

The effects of a stroke

The extent of the damage will depend upon which part of the brain has been affected and how much. The greater the damage the greater the effects.

A temporary stroke or transient ischaemic attack (TIA) is usually a temporary affair which clears up within a day. If you experience one of these then you will find that you are able to function as normal within 24 hours. But, this is a warning sign and must not be ignored.

If you experience such an attack then it can be the precursor of a full blown stroke so seek medical advice.

A stroke can cause long term or permanent incapacity such as paralysis on one side of the body. The speech may be affected and the ability to walk or perform day to day tasks.

Some people find that a stroke has affected their memory or ability to reason and form a judgement. If so then it is likely that the stroke has caused vascular dementia which can become progressively worse over time.

A stroke can be treated and some people do recover most of their normal functions but in other cases it causes permanent disability.

Diagnosing a stroke

Use the FAST formula if you suspect someone you know has suffered a stroke.

This will be fully diagnosed at a hospital via a brain scan (e.g. MRI scan) The main issue with a stroke is that of speed. The quicker it is diagnosed the greater the chance of a recovery. In some cases it is a matter of life and death.

Treatment for a stroke

There are a variety of options which include:

  • Clot-busting medication
  • High blood pressure medication
  • Surgery to bypass the damaged arteries within the brain

This is then followed by a stroke rehabilitation programme which involves a multidisciplinary team. This will include the services of a physiotherapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, psychologist etc. The aim is to ensure that the stroke sufferer is able to function as near normal as possible and to prevent any further strokes.

Can a stroke be prevented?

Yes. Start with by having your blood pressure checked and if this is too high then you will be given medication to control it. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for a stroke so look to reduce this.

Plus, review your lifestyle and if necessary, make a few changes such as stopping smoking, losing weight and eating healthily.

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