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A stroke is sometimes called a "brain attack." A stroke can injure the brain like a heart attack can injure the heart. A stroke occurs when part of the brain doesn't get the blood it needs.
There are two types of stroke:
Both types of stroke can cause brain cells to die. This may cause a person to lose control of their speech, movement, and memory. If you think you are having a stroke, call 911.
A “mini-stroke”, also called a transient ischemic attack or (TIA), happens when, for a short time, less blood than normal gets to the brain. You may have some signs of stroke or you may not notice any signs. A “mini-stroke” lasts from a few minutes up to a day. Many people do not even know they have had a stroke. A “mini-stroke” can be a sign of a full stroke to come. If you think you are having a “mini-stroke”, call 911.
A stroke happens fast. Most people have two or more signs.
The most common signs are:
Women may have unique symptoms:
If you have any of these symptoms, call 911.
The doctor will usually start by asking the patient what happened and when the symptoms began. Then the doctor will ask the patient some questions to see if she or he is thinking clearly. The doctor also will test the patient's reflexes to see if she or he may have had any physical damage. This helps the doctor find out which tests are needed.
The doctor may order one or more of the following tests:
It depends on the type of stroke, the area of the brain where the stroke occurs, and the extent of brain injury. A mild stroke can cause little or no brain damage. A major stroke can cause severe brain damage and even death.
A stroke can occur in different parts of the brain. The brain is divided into four main parts: the right hemisphere (or half), the left hemisphere (or half), the cerebellum, and the brain stem.
A stroke in the right half of the brain can cause:
A stroke in the left half of the brain can cause:
A stroke in the cerebellum, or the part of the brain that controls balance and coordination, can cause:
Strokes in the brain stem are very harmful because the brain stem controls all our body's functions that we don't have to think about, such as eye movements, breathing, hearing, speech, and swallowing. Since impulses that start in the brain must travel through the brain stem on their way to the arms and legs, patients with a brain stem stroke may also develop paralysis, or not be able to move or feel on one or both sides of the body.
In many cases, a stroke weakens the muscles, making it hard to walk, eat, or dress without help. Some symptoms may improve with time and rehabilitation or therapy.
It is a myth that stroke occurs only in older adults. A person of any age can have a stroke. But, stroke risk does increase with age. For every 10 years after the age of 55, the risk of stroke doubles, and two-thirds of all strokes occur in people over 65 years old. Stroke also seems to run in some families. Stroke risk doubles for a woman if someone in her immediate family (mom, dad, sister, or brother) has had a stroke.
Compared to white women, African-American women have more strokes and have a higher risk of disability and death from stroke. This is partly because more African-American women have high blood pressure, a major stroke risk factor. Women who smoke or who have high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (a kind of irregular heart beat), heart disease, or diabetes are more likely to have a stroke. Hormonal changes with pregnancy, childbirth, and menopause are also linked to an increased risk of stroke.
Experts think that up to 80% of strokes can be prevented. Some stroke risk factors cannot be controlled, such as age, family history, and ethnicity. But you can reduce your chances of having a stroke by taking these steps:
Ask your doctor or nurse for help. For more information on quitting, visit Smoking and how to quit.
Aspirin may be helpful for women at high risk, such as women who have already had a stroke. Aspirin can have serious side effects and may be harmful when mixed with certain medications. If you're thinking about taking aspirin, talk to your doctor first. If your doctor thinks aspirin is a good choice for you, be sure to take it exactly as your doctor tells you to.
Taking birth control pills is generally safe for young, healthy women. But birth control pills can raise the risk of stroke for some women, especially women over 35; women with high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol; and women who smoke. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about the pill.
If you are taking birth control pills, and you have any of the symptoms listed below, call 911:
The patch is generally safe for young, healthy women. The patch can raise the risk of stroke for some women, especially women over 35; women with high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol; and women who smoke.
Recent studies show that women who use the patch may be exposed to more estrogen (the female hormone in birth control pills and the patch that keeps users from becoming pregnant) than women who use the birth control pill. Research is underway to see if the risk for blood clots (which can lead to heart attack or stroke) is higher in patch users. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about the patch.
If you are using the birth control patch, and you have any of the symptoms listed below, call 911:
Strokes caused by blood clots can be treated with clot-busting drugs such as TPA, or tissue plasminogen activator. TPA must be given within three hours of the start of a stroke to work, and tests must be done first. This is why it is so important for a person having a stroke to get to a hospital fast.
Other medicines are used to treat and to prevent stroke. Anticoagulants, such as warfarin, and antiplatelet agents, such as aspirin, block the blood's ability to clot and can help prevent a stroke in patients with high risk, such as a person who has atrial fibrillation (a kind of irregular heartbeat).
Surgery is sometimes used to treat or prevent stroke. Carotid endarterectomy is a surgery to remove fatty deposits clogging the carotid artery in the neck, which could lead to a stroke. For hemorrhagic stroke, a doctor may perform surgery to place a metal clip at the base of an aneurysm (a thin or weak spot in an artery that balloons out and can burst) or remove abnormal blood vessels.
Rehabilitation is a very important part of recovery for many stroke survivors. The effects of stroke may mean that you must change, relearn, or redefine how you live. Stroke rehabilitation is designed to help you return to independent living.
Rehabilitation does not reverse the effects of a stroke. Its goals are to build your strength, capability, and confidence so you can continue your daily activities despite the effects of your stroke. Rehabilitation services may include:
For more information about stroke, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
Stroke fact sheet was reviewed by:
Patrice Desvigne-Nickens, M.D.
Leader, Cardiovascular Medicine SRG
Clinical and Molecular Medicine Program
Division of Heart and Vascular Diseases
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
Content last updated July 16, 2012.
Resources last updated January 28, 2009.