Stroke is a brain injury caused when blood flow is to the brain is suddenly interrupted due to a clot or a ruptured blood vessel. The interrupted blood flow causes damage to the brain. Stroke can happen at any age and may result in the loss of the ability to move, to communicate, to process information, to swallow, to cope with stress, and more. Its after-effects often include extreme fatigue, depression, anxiety, deficits with memory, attention and vision, and the inability to sense self-movement and body position. Deficits depend on where and how much damage has occurred in the brain.
That is why, at the first signs of stroke (listed below), it is essential to call 9-1-1 and seek immediate medical attention to limit or, in some cases, reverse damage.
Topics in this section include:
- Types of stroke
- Identifying a stroke using FAST
- Effects of stroke
- Stroke and brain injury rehabilitation
- Risk factors
- Tips for helping individuals coping with stroke
- Resources and research
Types of stroke leading to brain injury
About 85 per cent of strokes are ischemic, caused by a clot that blocks blood flow to the brain, and the remainder are hemorrhagic, caused when a weakened blood vessel bursts. A brain scan at the hospital will quickly determine the type and location of the stroke and the emergency treatment required.
Both kinds of stroke have similar symptoms, including drooping face, slurred speech, weakness, numbness, dizziness, confusion, and sudden severe headache. (See FAST, below)
Acute treatments are different, depending on the type and location of the stroke, which is why calling 9-1-1 and seeking immediate medical attention is critical. For both types of strokes, the patient will have a rehabilitation and treatment plan to follow when they leave the hospital.
People can also have a fleeting stroke called a Transient Ischemic Attack, or TIA. It is sometimes called a mini-stroke. TIA symptoms may only last for a few minutes, and usually less than a hour, and normally result in no lasting injury to the brain. However, a TIA is a warning sign that a more serious stroke may occur soon and medical care is required right away by calling 9-1-1.
Identifying a stroke using FAST
The key to minimizing the damage a stroke can do to the brain is getting medical attention as quickly as possible. The Heart and Stroke Foundation advocates using the FAST method to identify strokes in others. FAST stands for Face, Arms, Speech, and Time.
- Face – is it drooping?
- Arms – can both be raised?
- Speech – is it slurred
- Time – call 9-1-1 immediately
These are the main symptoms of stroke. Additional symptoms can include confusion, loss of consciousness, sudden and severe headaches, and nausea/vomiting.
Effects of stroke
A stroke causes damage to the brain, which can result in a variety of physical, emotional and cognitive effects that change a person’s ability to move, communicate and process information. These effects can include:
- Attention and memory deficits
- Balance challenges
- Bowel and bladder problems
- Emotional challenges, like depression
- Low energy
- Muscle weakness
- Paralysis – this can be localized (face, arm, or leg)
- Hemiplegia (paralysis on one side of the body)
- Quadriplegia (paralysis of all four limbs and trunk)
- Sensation changes
- Speech problems
- Swallowing problems (dysphagia)
- Vision problems
These changes can make it difficult to prepare food, drive, work, or complete leisure activities.
- More information on behavioural changes after a brain injury
- More information on cognitive changes after a brain injury
- More information on physical changes after a brain injury
- Heart and Stroke recovery resources
Stroke and brain injury rehabilitation
In the first few days, doctors will be trying to stabilize the person and make a medical diagnosis. Then recovery begins. The first stages of recovery can take different lengths of time for different people. Your friend or family member may feel tired and experience weakness. The medical team will work with them until they are able to move to rehabilitation and be discharged from the acute care or stroke ward of the hospital.
Rehabilitation will vary depending on the person’s needs, but the goals remain the same: to recover or adapt their abilities as best as possible. It will include physical, mental and cognitive exercises. It may also include working with a speech language pathologist (SLP) on speaking and swallowing. Occupational therapists (OT) can help with activities of daily living (ADLs), motor skills and home environments. Physical therapists (PT) can assist with muscle strengthening and range of motion (ROM) exercises. Rehabilitation takes a lot of time, practice and patience but it will help the stroke survivor regain as much independence as possible.
- More information on rehabilitation and rehabilitation specialists for brain injury
- Heart and Stroke information on stroke rehabilitation
Risk factors for a stroke
There are several lifestyle and conditional factors that can increase a person’s risk of stroke.
Lifestyle changes can improve overall health while reducing risk of stroke. Conditional factors such as blood pressure and diabetes can be addressed with doctors, medications, and in some cases lifestyle adjustments.
Resources & Research
- Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery
- Canadian Stroke Best Practices
- Stroke in Young Adults guidebook
- Stroke Engine – information about stroke and rehabilitation
- 7 steps to recovery from the Stroke Association of British Columbia
- Videos about stroke recovery and living with stroke
- March of Dimes stroke recovery programs