Cerebrovascular disease includes a range of conditions that affect the flow of blood through the brain. This alteration of blood flow can sometimes impair the brain’s functions on either a temporary or permanent basis. When such an event occurs suddenly, it’s referred to as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA).
Conditions that fall under the heading of cerebrovascular disease include:
- Stroke: The most common type of cerebrovascular disease. The hallmark of a stroke is the permanent loss of sensation or motor function. The two general categories of strokes are hemorrhagic (bleeding into the brain) or ischemic (insufficient blood flow to the brain).
- Transient ischemic attack (TIA): This is similar to a stroke, but the symptoms completely resolve within 24 hours. TIA is sometimes referred to as a “mini stroke.”
- Aneurysms of blood vessels supplying the brain: An aneurysm is caused by a weakening of the artery wall, resulting in a bulge in the blood vessel.
- Vascular malformations: This refers to abnormalities present in arteries or veins.
- Vascular dementia: Cognitive impairment that is usually permanent.
- Subarachnoid hemorrhage: This term is used to describe blood leaking out of a blood vessel onto the brain’s surface.
The symptoms of cerebrovascular disease may differ slightly depending on the specific condition you have. However, stroke is the most common presentation of cerebrovascular diseases.
Strokes are characterized by sudden onset of symptoms, and survival and functional outcomes are time-sensitive. To help you identify the warning signs of a stroke, use the acronym FAST:
- Facial droop: One side of the face may appear “droopy” or the person may be unable to smile.
- Arm weakness: The person is unable to raise their arm above their head
- Speech difficulty: The person has slurred speech, is unable to find words, or is unable to understand what people are saying to them
- Time to call 911: Immediately seek medical attention if even one of these symptoms is present.
Other symptoms of a TIA or stroke include:
- severe headache
- vertigo or dizziness
- vomiting and nausea
- memory loss or confusion
- numbness and tingling in the arm, leg, or face, usually on only one side of the body
- slurred speech
- vision problems
- difficulty or inability to walk
The specific treatment depends on the type of cerebrovascular disease that you have. However, the treatment centers on improving your brain’s blood flow. Based on the cause of the loss of blood flow, your doctor will choose among several treatment options. The most effective treatment for you will depend on the extent of the loss of blood flow.
Most cases of cerebrovascular disease are treated with medications. These medications may include:
Medications are usually given to people whose arteries are less than 50 percent blocked or narrowed. In more severe cases, surgery to remove plaque or blockages, or to insert a stent may be required.
If brain function has already been reduced or altered by a cerebrovascular disease, then you may need to have physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy as a part of the recovery process.
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For people who survive a stroke, the two most important outcomes are functional outcomes and life expectancy. These are determined by the specific condition causing the stroke, the severity of the stroke, and the individual’s response to rehabilitation therapy.
A cerebrovascular disease, especially a stroke, must receive immediate medical attention to have the best outcomes.
Depending on the severity of your condition, you may be left with permanent mental disability, problems with mobility, or weakness or paralysis in your arms, face, or legs.
However, with immediate medical attention, medications, surgery, interventional procedures, or a combination of these, many people return to normal functionality.
Complications of cerebrovascular disease that may develop include:
- permanent disability
- loss of cognitive functions
- partial paralysis in some limbs
- speech difficulties
- memory loss
There is also a possibility of death from a cardiovascular event that is serious or doesn’t get immediate medical attention.
Although cerebrovascular disease is a fairly common medical condition, there are things you can do to help prevent it.
Several health behaviors are associated with reducing stroke risk:
- not smoking, or stopping if you do
- following a healthy, balanced diet
- controlling your high blood pressure
- lowering your blood cholesterol
- losing weight if you’re overweight
- being aware of the risks of any type of hormone replacement therapy
- visiting your doctor regularly for annual checkups
- lowering your stress levels
- reducing the amount of alcohol you drink
Preventing cerebrovascular disease is always the best goal. However, if you think someone around you is having stroke-like symptoms, call 911 immediately. Getting immediate medical attention will help give the best chance for full recovery.