Family Health Diary

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel carrying oxygen to the brain leaks or is blocked by a clot. The stopping of blood flow means the brain cannot get the oxygen it needs to survive, brain cells are damaged and may start to die.

Effects of a stroke

The brain is a complex organ divided into many different parts, eg. left hemisphere, right hemisphere, brain stem and cerebellum. Each part of the brain controls various functions of your body. The effects of a stroke are many and varied and depend on the part of the brain that has been affected.

The left side of the brain controls the functions of the right side of the body. If a stroke damages cells in the left side of the brain there may be paralysis, loss of strength or loss of feeling in the right side of the body. Similarly the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and a stroke on the right side of the brain may cause loss of function on the left side of the body.

 Recognising and treating a stroke

A stroke is a medical emergency so the faster it is recognised and medical attention received, the less damage will be caused.

Common symptoms of a stroke are:

  • Blurred vision
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of sensation/tingling
  • Weakness in an arm or leg or both.

Is it a Stroke?

F    Face – SMILE – is one side droopy?

A    Arms – RAISE both arms – is one side weak?

S    Speech – SPEAK a simple sentence – slurred or unable to?

T    Time – Lost time could be lost brain function. Get to hospital fast. Dial 111.

Prevention and Treatment
Preventing a stroke can be simple. Knowing and managing your risk factors – those things that increase your risk of having a stroke is most important.
Simple rules to reduce your risk of stroke are:

1. Check your blood pressure
High blood pressure means the pressure inside arteries is too high. This puts stress on the walls of the blood vessels and may damage them making a stroke more likely.

A doctor can check blood pressure and if it is high will probably recommend lifestyle changes (see section below). Medicines to control blood pressure may also be prescribed. It is important to take such medicines every day. Never give up taking them without talking to your pharmacist or doctor first.

2. Stop smoking
Smoking damages blood vessels making them narrow. It may also make blood thicker and more likely to clot.

As soon as a person stops smoking, their risk of having a stroke immediately drops.

To get help to stop smoking, call the Smoking Quit Line on 0800 778 778 or talk to your doctor or pharmacist.

3. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink
The standard recommendation is no more than 2 standard drinks/day for women and 3 for men, with at least 2 alcohol-free days a week. Regular heavy and binge-drinking significantly increases the risk of stroke.

4. Follow a healthy lifestyle
Eat a low-fat, low-salt, high-fibre diet.

  • Low-fat milk products
  • Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Multigrain or whole wheat breads and cereals
  • Cheese with less than 20% milk fat
  • Food prepared with little or no fat
  • Lean red meats, fish and skinless poultry.

Reduce blood cholesterol levels

Having too much cholesterol in your blood increases the risk of heart disease and may cause fatty deposits to build up in your blood vessels.  In time these can block blood flow to, and in, the brain and cause a stroke. Blood cholesterol levels can be checked with a simple blood test.  If you have high cholesterol you will need to change what you eat.  Some people will also need to take medicines that help to lower cholesterol.

Exercise lowers blood pressure, slows resting heart rate and reduces stress on the walls of blood vessels as well increasing fitness. People who exercise have a lower risk of stroke.

Control your body weight
Being overweight puts strain on your circulatory system which includes blood vessels. It also makes someone more likely to have high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which both increase the risk of stroke.

5. Find out if you have atrial fibrillation
Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heartbeat – the heart beats irregularly and can be rapid. People with atrial fibrillation have a much higher risk (about 5 times higher) of having a stroke. Atrial fibrillation needs lifelong monitoring and treatment.

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