A stroke, which involves damage to part of the brain, is caused by an interruption in the brain’s blood supply that deprives the brain tissue of oxygen and nutrients. Within minutes of this interruption, brain cells begin to die and the affected area will no longer function properly. A stroke, also called a cerebral infarction, may be due to either a blockage or a leak in one of the arteries supplying the brain. Strokes affect about 700,000 people in the U.S. each year. The condition is more common among men and older people, and is the leading cause of disability in adults. Accounting for 1 out of every 15 deaths in the United States, strokes are the third most common cause of death in the U.S., following heart attacks and cancer. The risk for stroke doubles with each decade after age 35.
How does a stroke develop?
About half of all strokes occur when a blood clot forms in an artery in the brain, a process called cerebral thrombosis. Other major causes are bleeding in the brain, known as a cerebral embolism. The latter occurs when a fragment of a blood clot that has formed elsewhere in the body, such as in the heart or the main arteries of the neck, travels in the blood and lodges in an artery supplying the brain. Just under one third of all strokes are caused by a cerebral embolism. Cerebral hemorrhage, which causes about one fifth of all strokes, occurs when an artery supplying the brain ruptures and blood seeps out into the surrounding tissue. This can happen either “spontaneously” or as the result of a significant injury. A stroke can involve either a small vessel, in which cases it is considered minor, or a large vessel of the brain, in which case it is classified as major.
Factors that increase the risk of developing a stroke include age; a family history of stroke; a diet high in fat; smoking; diabetes; and high lipid levels (high cholesterol) in the blood. In addition, complications of heart rhythm and heart valve disorders can lead to a greater risk of developing a blood clot in the heart that could travel to the brain.
What are the symptoms of a stroke?
The symptoms of a stroke develop rapidly over a matter of seconds or minutes in most people. While the exact symptoms depend on the area of the brain affected, the most common signs and symptoms include:
- a sudden numbness, weakness or paralysis of the face, arm or leg, usually on one side of the body
- loss of speech, or trouble talking or understanding speech
- sudden blurred, double or decreased vision
- loss of balance or coordination
- a sudden, severe “bolt out of the blue” headache, or an unusual headache that may be accompanied by a stiff neck, facial pain, pain between the eyes, vomiting or altered consciousness
- difficulty swallowing
- confusion or problems with memory, spatial orientation or perception
- blacking out
Symptoms may progress or fluctuate during the first day or two after a stroke starts. This is called a stroke in evolution. When no further deterioration occurs, the condition is considered a completed stroke.
Conventional medical treatments may help relieve the symptoms of a stroke, but they do not get at the root of the problem. By addressing the underlying physiology of a stroke, as natural medicine treatments do, a stroke can be treated and future strokes can be avoided.
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