What is a stroke?
A stroke, or cerebrovascular accident (CVA), occurs when blood supply to part of the brain is disrupted, causing brain cells to die. When blood flow to the brain is impaired, oxygen and glucose cannot be delivered to the brain. Blood flow can be compromised by a variety of mechanisms.
Blockage of an artery
* Narrowing of the small arteries within the brain can cause a so-called lacunar stroke, (lacune=empty space). Blockage of a single arteriole can affect a tiny area of brain causing that tissue to die (infarct).
* Hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) leading to the brain. There are four major blood vessels that supply the brain with blood. The anterior circulation of the brain that controls most motor, activity, sensation, thought, speech, and emotion is supplied by the carotid arteries. The posterior circulation, which supplies the brainstem and the cerebellum, controlling the automatic parts of brain function and coordination, is supplied by the vertebrobasilar arteries.
If these arteries become narrow as a result of atherosclerosis, plaque or cholesterol, debris can break off and float downstream, clogging the blood supply to a part of the brain. As opposed to lacunar strokes, larger parts of the brain can lose blood supply, and this may produce more symptoms than a lacunar stroke.
* Embolism to the brain from the heart. In situations in which blood clots form within the heart, the potential exists for small clots to break off and travel (embolize) to the arteries in the brain and cause a stroke.
Rupture of an artery (hemorrhage)
* Cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding within the brain substance). The most common reason to have bleeding within the brain is uncontrolled high blood pressure. Other situations include aneurysms that leak or rupture or arteriovenous malformations (AVM) in which there is an abnormal collection of blood vessels that are fragile and can bleed.
What causes a stroke?
Blockage of an artery
The blockage of an artery in the brain by a clot (thrombosis) is the most common cause of a stroke. The part of the brain that is supplied by the clotted blood vessel is then deprived of blood and oxygen. As a result of the deprived blood and oxygen, the cells of that part of the brain die. Typically, a clot forms in a small blood vessel within the brain that has been previously narrowed due to a variety of risk factors including:
* high blood pressure (hypertension),
* high cholesterol,
* diabetes, and
Another type of stroke may occur when a blood clot or a piece of atherosclerotic plaque (cholesterol and calcium deposits on the wall of the inside of the heart or artery) breaks loose, travels through open arteries, and lodges in an artery of the brain. When this happens, the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain is blocked and a stroke occurs. This type of stroke is referred to as an embolic stroke. For example, a blood clot might originally form in the heart chamber as a result of an irregular heart rhythm, such as occurs in atrial fibrillation. Usually, these clots remain attached to the inner lining of the heart, but occasionally they can break off, travel through the blood stream, form a plug (embolism) in a brain artery, and cause a stroke. An embolism can also originate in a large artery (for example, the carotid artery, a major artery in the neck that supplies blood to the brain) and then travel downstream to clog a small artery within the brain.
A cerebral hemorrhage occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds into the surrounding brain tissue. A cerebral hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) can cause a stroke by depriving blood and oxygen to parts of the brain. Blood is also very irritating to the brain and can cause swelling of brain tissue (cerebral edema). Edema and the accumulation of blood from a cerebral hemorrhage increases pressure within the skull and causes further damage by squeezing the brain against the bony skull.
In a subarachnoid hemorrhage, blood accumulates in the space beneath the arachnoid membrane that lines the brain. The blood originates from an abnormal blood vessel that leaks or ruptures. Often this is from an aneurysm (an abnormal ballooning out of the wall of the vessel). Subarachnoid hemorrhages usually cause a sudden, severe headache and stiff neck. If not recognized and treated, major neurological consequences, such as coma, and brain death will occur.
Another rare cause of stroke is vasculitis, a condition in which the blood vessels become inflamed.
There appears to be a very slight increased occurrence of stroke in people with migraine headache. The mechanism for migraine or vascular headaches includes narrowing of the brain blood vessels. Some migraine headache episodes can even mimic stroke with loss of function of one side of the body or vision or speech problems. Usually, the symptoms resolve as the headache resolves.
What are the risk factors for stroke?
Overall, the most common risk factors for stroke are:
* high blood pressure,
* high cholesterol,
* diabetes and
* increasing age.
Heart rhythm disturbances like atrial fibrillation, patent foramen ovale, and heart valve disease can also be the cause.
When strokes occur in younger individuals (less than 50 years old), less common risk factors are considered including illicit drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines, ruptured aneurysms, and inherited (genetic) predispositions to blood clotting.
An example of a genetic predisposition to stroke occurs in a rare condition called homocystinuria, in which there are excessive levels of the chemical homocystine in the body. Scientists are trying to determine whether the non-hereditary occurrence of high levels of homocystine at any age can predispose to stroke.
What is a transient ischemic attack (TIA)?
A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a short-lived episode (less than 24 hours) of temporary impairment to the brain that is caused by a loss of blood supply. A TIA causes a loss of function in the area of the body that is controlled by the portion of the brain affected. The loss of blood supply to the brain is most often caused by a clot that spontaneously forms in a blood vessel within the brain (thrombosis). However, it can also result from a clot that forms elsewhere in the body, dislodges from that location, and travels to lodge in an artery of the brain (emboli). A spasm and, rarely, a bleed are other causes of a TIA. Many people refer to a TIA as a “mini-stroke.”
Some TIAs develop slowly, while others develop rapidly. By definition, all TIAs resolve within 24 hours. Strokes take longer to resolve than TIAs, and with strokes, complete function may never return and reflect a more permanent and serious problem. Although most TIAs often last only a few minutes, all TIAs should be evaluated with the same urgency as a stroke in an effort to prevent recurrences and/or strokes. TIAs can occur once, multiple times, or precede a permanent stroke. A transient ischemic attack should be considered an emergency because there is no guarantee that the situation will resolve and function will return.
A TIA from a clot to the eye can cause temporary visual loss (amaurosis fugax), which is often described as the sensation of a curtain coming down. A TIA that involves the carotid artery (the largest blood vessel supplying the brain) can produce problems with movement or sensation on one side of the body, which is the side opposite to the actual blockage. An affected patient may experience paralysis of the arm, leg, and face, all on one side. Double vision, dizziness (vertigo), and loss of speech, understanding, and balance can also be symptoms depending on what part of the brain is lacking blood supply.