What Is a Stroke?

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A stroke occurs when something restricts blood flow to your brain, causing a host of symptoms like confusion, weakness on one side of your face, and sometimes death if left untreated.  Stroke is the second-leading cause of death in the world and the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a stroke, it’s critical to receive immediate medical attention and receive treatment as quickly as possible—as this can prevent serious and sometimes fatal complications from occurring. Generally, treatment options will depend on what type of stroke you’re having, the amount of time since your symptoms started, and your overall health. 

Types of Strokes

There are two primary types of strokes, which include:

  • Ischemic stroke: An ischemic stroke occurs when you have a blood clot in your brain that is affecting blood flow. This can affect your brain tissue from getting the oxygen it needs and can kill brain cells pretty quickly. An estimated 87% of strokes are ischemic.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in your brain ruptures, causing a significant amount of blood to enter your brain. Because of the way the skull is constructed in the head, the excess blood has no way to escape, which compresses your brain and causes a variety of symptoms. An estimated 13% of stroke types are hemorrhagic. 
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Prompt recognition and treatment of a stroke are vital to improving someone’s chances of survival and overall well-being. A common mnemonic device that you can use to help you remember stroke symptoms is BEFAST. This stands for:

  • B is for balance: Losing balance or appearing uncoordinated 
  • E is for eyes: Blurry vision or seeing double 
  • F is for facial weakness: Face appears to droop on one side as compared to the other side 
  • A is for arm: Weakness, numbness, or temporary paralysis in the arms (and, sometimes legs)
  • S is for speech: Slurred speech or trouble speaking clearly 
  • T is for time to call 911: Seeking and receiving treatment as quickly as possible is very important to a person’s recovery after having a stroke


A stroke usually occurs due to a combination of factors, and these may depend upon what stroke type you’re having.

An ischemic stroke is commonly due to atherosclerosis—or a buildup of cholesterol (called cholesterol deposits) in your body’s blood vessels. The cholesterol deposits can narrow your blood vessels, making it hard for blood to pass through with each and allowing clots to form. A clot at its most basic level is a clump of blood that can block blood flow. However, other factors such as inflammation, brain injury, and a history of abnormal heart rhythms (such as atrial fibrillation) can also increase your risk of an ischemic stroke. 

The most common cause of hemorrhagic stroke is very high blood pressure that places too much pressure on the blood vessels in your brain, eventually causing the vessel to rupture. Other factors that may cause a hemorrhagic stroke include taking excessive amounts of blood thinners or experiencing a head injury. 

Risk Factors 

Many risk factors for a stroke are related to lifestyle habits. This means that if you can make healthy lifestyle changes or continue to follow healthy habits, you can likely reduce your stroke risk. Some risk factors of a stroke include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High blood sugar 
  • High cholesterol 
  • A history of kidney problems 
  • Obesity 
  • Sedentary lifestyle 
  • Alcohol use
  • Smoking  

The most significant risk factor for stroke is high blood pressure. In fact, an estimated 56% of people who have a stroke also have a history of high blood pressure. 

Age and Stroke

It’s important to note that age plays a major role in your risk of a stroke. You are more likely to experience a stroke once you turn 55 and your risk of stroke also doubles every decade after.  Age is the most significant risk for stroke—the incidence of stroke doubles every decade after a person is age 55.


If you or a loved one is having stroke-like symptoms, you should call 911 to seek immediate medical attention. Usually, your primary healthcare provider might not be available, as strokes are medical emergencies. In such cases, a provider at an emergency department of a hospital will:

  • Rush you into a treatment room
  • Assess you for stroke symptoms with a quick physical exam 
  • Order an imaging scan such as a computed tomography (CT) scan to check for a brain bleed, notice any damage to the brain cells, and identify the type of stroke you’re having 


The treatment you receive will depend on what type of stroke you’re having. The goal of treatment is to re-establish blood flow in your brain. 

If you are having an ischemic stroke, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe a tissue plasminogen activator (tPA). This is a medication that helps to break up the clot that is affecting your brain’s blood flow. However, there is a time limit from the start of symptoms when this medication will work. If your symptoms have lasted longer than three to five hours, tPA won’t be effective in treating the stroke.

Sometimes, a healthcare provider can perform a medical procedure to remove the blood clot that is blocking blood flow to your brain. While different surgical approaches exist, they generally involve threading a catheter through your groin and up to your brain to remove the clot and inserting a stent (a small tube that keeps your arteries open) to keep blood flowing through the blood vessel. 

If you’re having a hemorrhagic stroke, the primary treatment option is medication to lower your blood pressure. In some cases, a provider can also recommend medical procedures such as an aneurysm clipping to stop bleeding in the brain, a blood transfusion, and draining blood or excess fluid from the brain, among other surgeries.

How to Prevent a Stroke

You can take several steps to reduce your likelihood of having a stroke. Some prevention strategies include:

  • Quitting smoking if you smoke 
  • Reducing your alcohol, salt, and cholesterol intake
  • Taking medications to manage high blood pressure
  • Treating underlying conditions, such as atrial fibrillation or other heart problems 
  • Engaging in regular physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day 
  • Seeing your doctor for an annual checkup to assess your bloodwork and risk of stroke

Managing a Stroke

While a stroke can have fatal complications, advanced research in diagnosis and treatment has reduced the risk of death from a stroke in the last 60 years. Enhanced methods to prevent, detect, and treat a stroke have helped improve long-term health outcomes. Knowing the symptoms of a stroke and the importance of seeking emergency medical attention can also significantly increase the likelihood of survival. 

If you’ve had a stroke, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months to fully recover. Experiencing a stroke is a major life event, so it’s critical to keep in touch with your healthcare provider, follow your post-stroke treatment plan, and be patient with yourself as you heal.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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