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What Causes Strokes?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Strokes are a type of brain injury in which the blood supply is interrupted to part of the brain, resulting in a loss of neurological function. They are also sometimes known as cerebrovascular accidents, because they are related to the blood or vascular supply of the brain. This type of injury can be extremely debilitating, especially to an older or already compromised patient or an individual who has already had one before. Approximately 25% of people who experience a stroke will have a recurrent incident within the next five years. Women are more likely to die of one than men, and they are one of the leading causes of death in much of the developed world.

The symptoms of a stroke include numbness, stabbing pains, headaches, dizziness, and blurred vision and speech. Problems with memory, thinking, controlling emotions, and logic can also result. Victims can experience weakness or paralysis on one side of the body, and many experience depression as well. Patients can reduce their risk by modifying their behavior. Smoking, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol are all risk factors, and some of these can be modified with diet, exercise, behavioral therapy, and medical intervention.

There are two types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Both cause a disruption of perfusion, or the delivery of arterial blood to surrounding tissue. The area of the brain with imperfect perfusion is no longer able to oxygenate properly, causing an ischemic cascade that damages or kills brain cells.

The ischemic cascade is a series of events that can last for hours after the initial interruption due to the severe neurological disruption that results when blood supply to the brain is cut off. Because the chemical functions of brain cells are disrupted, they begin to fail and sometimes ultimately to die if the process cannot be arrested. Frequently, swelling of the brain occurs as cells break down and flood the surrounding cells with toxins created in the process.

Because brain functions are not fully understood, there are few treatments for strokes other than rehabilitation and support with recovery efforts. Sometimes, depending on which type occurs, drugs related to blood clotting are used while the event is happening in an effort to reduce or halt its effects. It is suspected that some classes of drugs may affect the brain during ischemic cascade and might ultimately be used to stop the breakdown process as well. Prevention is the best cure, because of the irreversible affects of even a small amount of brain damage.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Emilski — On Aug 30, 2012

@JimmyT - I think how a stroke develops really just depends on the case. Just like heart attacks, some of them are caused by things happening the last few days and some of them take years to fully develop. I would also be interested in hearing if there are any tests that can be done.

I have also heard of things called mini strokes. Does anyone know how these work? Is it just some kind of recurring stroke or something completely different from a regular stroke? How dangerous are they?

By JimmyT — On Aug 29, 2012

I have noticed over the last few years a greater interest in preventing strokes. Just recently, the a couple hospitals around my city put up billboards listing the first signs of a stroke and saying that you shouldn't ignore any of the warning signs, because it can lead to more problems later on.

I was never aware of what exactly the cause of a stroke was. Now I can understand why going to a hospital immediately is very important.

From reading the article, it seems like strokes are something that develop rather slowly and then "attack" at once when the oxygen levels reach a certain threshold. If this is correct, is there any way to get tests done that can predict whether a stroke could occur?

By cardsfan27 — On Aug 28, 2012

@jcraig - I have actually heard that reasonable consumption of alcohol and have a beneficial effect when talking about strokes. I don't know the science behind it, but just drinking one or two drinks each day can reduce the risk of stroke. I would say it is similar to how drinking small amounts can help the liver by cleaning out toxins. Maybe drinking also helps the blood flow somehow.

I think it goes without saying, but regular exercise can also reduce your risk of stroke. When my dad got older, his doctor warned him about his possible risk for having a stroke. Since he had had a couple people in his family with strokes he started to do something about it. Now, he exercises quite a bit and is in great shape. His doctor also says that he is now in the low-risk category for strokes.

By jcraig — On Aug 27, 2012

@anon24139 - I don't know any specific linkages between alcohol and strokes, but I could see a possible connection. Whenever you drink alcohol it affects the blood, because part of the normal liquid is replaced with ethanol. I don't know whether or not alcohol could cause loss of oxygen to certain parts of the brain, but it seems plausible.

I would say that alcohol's effect on the heart could also come into play. Alcoholics and people who drink a lot tend to have weaker hearts. Because of this, I could definitely see where the brain could end up with less blood and oxygen than it is supposed to have. If anyone has any more information about alcohol and strokes, I would be interested to hear about it.

By wavy58 — On Aug 27, 2012

Sometimes strokes run in a person's family. There is some sort of genetic mutation that places people at an increased risk for stroke.

My friend's husband died of a hemorrhagic stroke. He had an aneurysm that ruptured, and it bled into his brain.

His father had died of the same thing, and so had his grandfather. All were in their thirties when they died, and two of them were the exact same age when they had strokes.

By shell4life — On Aug 26, 2012

Certain medications can increase your risk of having a stroke. Birth control pills are notorious for this, and the risk is greater if you are older than thirty-five or a smoker.

My sister's doctor refused to renew her prescription for birth control pills once she turned thirty-five, because she was also a smoker. She didn't want to quit, so her husband had a vasectomy.

I really wish that she could find a way to quit smoking. Even though she is no longer on the pill, I know that being a smoker puts her at a higher risk of having a stroke someday.

By healthy4life — On Aug 26, 2012

@orangey03 – Did she go through any type of rehabilitation? It seems like she should have regained more abilities in that amount of time if she had.

I read a lot of stroke information after my grandmother suffered one ten years ago. One thing that always came up in every article was how important it was for patients to keep going to therapy classes. It's especially crucial for the first few months, but even after that, it should be continued.

Your brain has to relearn the simple things, like how to say certain words and how to move your limbs around. Sometimes, it's like starting over from childhood.

By orangey03 — On Aug 25, 2012

My aunt did not seek stroke treatment quickly enough, and she is much worse off than she would have been if she had gotten to the hospital sooner. She was staying at a casino when she noticed that one side of her mouth had turned down, and she could not straighten it out.

Since she was on vacation, she hesitated to go to the hospital. She waited hours before finally driving herself there, and by then, she had lost the ability to speak clearly.

Days after being hospitalized, she could only utter one word. She had lost the use of her right arm.

That was two years ago. Now, she still has a limited vocabulary, though she can say more than one word. She has limited use of her right arm, though its function has improved a little.

By anon24139 — On Jan 07, 2009

can little or excessive consumption of alcohol also cause stroke? and to what degree does smoking affect stroke?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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