What Happens When You Have a Stroke

When an individual experiences a stroke, the primary impact is damage to the brain. The brain is not only the center of all thought, feelings, memory, motion, sensation, and language. It is also the command center for all biological functions, directing and controlling all functioning from breathing and digestion to nerves and hormones. Damage to the brain can be devastating to a person’s ability to function physically, mentally, or emotionally. For that reason, every effort must be made to avoid strokes and, if a stroke does occur, to treat it immediately to limit or prevent damage.

As with many facets of life, exactly what happens to an individual when a stroke occurs is dependent on a variety of factors and circumstances including age, overall health, and previous stroke history- just to name a few. Additionally, the type of stroke you have plays a significant part in what happens to a person when they experience a stroke.

Types of strokes

What we call a stroke is damage to the central nervous system due to a blocked or ruptured blood vessel. While the brain is only 2% of body weight, it consumes 20% of the oxygen from the blood in order to perform its wide array of critical functions.

An ischemic stroke happens when a blood clot clogs an artery, preventing blood flow to the brain. Ischemic strokes account for ~75-85% of strokes. This kind of stroke can have different causes:

  • Embolic stroke: This occurs when a blood clot travels from another part of the body to lodge in an artery in the brain. This can also occur with plaque, which is a build-up of cholesterol, fat, or calcium that forms on the arteries, breaks off, and travels to the brain and gets stuck.

  • Thrombotic stroke: In this case, the blood clot or blockage does not travel from another part of the body but rather forms in the blood vessel itself, blocking blood flow.

A hemorrhagic stroke refers to a burst or leaky blood vessel in or around the brain. There are also two types of hemorrhagic strokes:

  • Intracerebral hemorrhage: This refers to a burst or leaky blood vessel within the brain. This results in decreased blood flow to the brain, but also leads to additional injury from inflammation and may increase the pressure inside the skull, potentially causing additional brain damage.

  • Subarachnoid hemorrhage: In this case, the burst or leaky blood vessel occurs in the area that surrounds your brain, typically due to aneurysm. This can cause the same damage as the intracerebral hemorrhage because of the pressure that builds up in the skull, but it can also be followed by blood vessel spasms, which narrow the blood vessels and risk an ischemic stroke.

Stroke detection and treatment

Brain cells begin to die within a few minutes without oxygen; after these few moments, the stroke victim can lose 2,000,000 brain cells every minute. After 10 minutes without oxygen, damage can be quite severe. This is why immediate action is critical.

Early detection of stroke onset can dramatically improve outcomes for those who have strokes. The most common signs of stroke can be easily remembered with the acronym F.A.S.T., which stands for “facial droop, arm weakness, speech difficulty, and time to call 911.”

Strokes are frequently not associated with pain, which is a mistake many patients make. Because they’re not in pain, they wait for their symptoms to pass and don’t mention it to anyone while it’s happening. But if one minute you can move your arm and the next minute you can’t, or if you suddenly can’t form a thought or a clear sentence, you must not ignore it. It probably won’t pass. If it does, it may be what is called a TIA, or mini-stroke. A TIA is a shot across the bow, warning you that you are in grave danger of a major stroke event. Get help immediately.

Not only do people need to watch for signs of stroke in themselves, but they also need to watch for it in others. If you notice sudden slurred speech, inability to think, or facial or limb weakness in someone else, don’t wait. Call 911 and tell them that you suspect a stroke. EMTs in the ambulance will be aware of the condition and be prepared to provide immediate medical assistance to stop or slow the damage until they can get the patient to a hospital.

Strokes do not have to be life-altering events. The good news is that strokes are often treatable, if they are identified early. Know the warning signs and get help immediately.