Stroke 101

A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery or a blood vessel breaks and prevents blood flow to a portion of the brain. Brain cells start to die when the brain is deprived of blood, and brain damage occurs.

Stroke-induced brain damage can be extensive and permanent. However, early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent extensive brain damage.

A stroke can be a devastating event that permanently changes a person’s ability to function. It can result in difficulties, such as numbness, or more serious disabilities, such as not being able to speak or walk.

The physical effects depend on the type of stroke, its location, the stage at which it’s diagnosed and treated, and the general health of the person.

“Time is brain” is a saying that emphasizes the importance of seeking medical help quickly when experiencing a stroke. Brain tissue is rapidly damaged as a stroke progresses, so the sooner you get help, the better the chances your brain will recover from a stroke. It’s important to know the early signs of stroke and seek immediate medical attention if you begin to experience any of them.

Warning signs of stroke are summarized in the acronym FAST, which the National Stroke Association (NSA) defines as follows:

  • face: if a person smiles and one side of the face droops
  • arms: if a person tries to raise both arms but one of them involuntarily drifts downward
  • speech: if a person slurs their speech when asked to repeat a simple phrase
  • time: if a person has any of the aforementioned symptoms, call 911 immediately

Know the stroke warning signs, and don’t hesitate to seek medical care if you think you or someone else may be having one. This is the best course of action for limiting brain damage and improving recovery time.

According to the American Heart Association, if a stroke victim gets medical attention within three hours of symptom onset, they may be able to receive an IV drip of clot-buster medication. This medication may break up the clot and reduce long-term disability.

What are the odds for recovery? According to the NSA:

  • 10 percent of those who survive a stroke experience almost complete recovery
  • 25 percent of stroke survivors recover with only minor impairments
  • 40 percent have moderate to severe impairments that require special care
  • 10 percent need care in a long-term care facility
  • 15 percent die soon after the stroke

Physical rehabilitation can often significantly improve a person’s functional ability. While recovery time and effectiveness vary greatly from person to person, the following therapies may help:

  • therapy while in a hospital
  • therapy while in a subacute care unit
  • therapy in a rehabilitation hospital
  • home therapy
  • outpatient therapy
  • therapy and skilled nursing care in a long-term care facility

Rehabilitation therapies may include physical activities, cognitive and emotional activities, and alternative therapies.

Physical activities

  • strengthening motor skills: exercises to increase muscle strength and coordination
  • mobility training: learning to walk with walking aids, like canes or walkers
  • constraint-induced therapy: restricting use of unaffected limb while practicing use of affected limb
  • range of motion therapy: exercises to lessen muscle tension and increase range of motion

Cognitive/emotional activities

  • communication therapy: therapy to help regain abilities to speak, listen, and write
  • psychological treatment: counseling with a mental health professional or support group to help with emotional adjustment
  • medications: to treat depression in some people who have had a stroke

Experimental therapies

  • the use of stem cells in the setting of a clinical trial
  • the use of new brain protective agents in the setting of a clinical trial
  • massage
  • herbal therapy
  • acupuncture

When choosing the best rehabilitation option for a loved one, consider which option would make him or her most comfortable and willing to learn.

The rehabilitation process often involves relearning such basic tasks as eating and dressing oneself. The more relaxed and unthreatened a person feels, the faster they’re likely to recover. A major goal of stroke rehabilitation is to improve function and promote independence.

It’s important to get medical care as soon as stroke symptoms are identified or suspected. The faster medical treatment begins, the less likely it is that extensive brain damage will occur.

According to the NSA, over seven million Americans have survived a stroke and now live with its effects. While stroke is an unexpected and often devastating occurrence, early detection, treatment, and consistent rehabilitative care can help minimize permanent damage.

The rehabilitation process can at times be tedious and frustrating. Keeping a determined and positive outlook may mean the difference between a slow or speedy recovery. The course of treatment and success rate of stroke rehabilitation is highly personal.