The Doctor's notebook | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - October 2008

The Doctor's notebook

How common is stroke?

Each year, about 150,000 people in the UK have a stroke. That’s one person every five minutes, so it’s no surprise that stroke and its after-effects are commonly dealt with by GPs. Most people affected by stroke are over 65, but children can fall victim too.

So what is a stroke?

The simplest description is that stroke is a ‘brain attack’. It usually happens without warning when the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off, causing brain cells to be damaged or destroyed. There are two main causes. The most common is a blockage — called an ischaemic stroke — which happens when a clot blocks an artery that carries blood to the brain. The second type is a bleed, when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the brain. This is a haemorrhagic stroke. There is a third kind — a transient ischaemic attack (TIA). Often called a mini-stroke, it happens when the brain’s blood supply is interrupted for a short time. The symptoms are similar to a stroke — weakness on one side of the body, sight loss and slurred speech. They are temporary, but can indicate an increased risk of a future ‘full’ stroke — so tell your GP if you’ve experienced even mild symptoms of a TIA.

What are the signs of stroke?

With stroke, prompt action makes a difference. To determine quickly whether someone has had a stroke, paramedics use the ‘FAST’ test — an easy-to-remember checklist of tell-tale signs: *Facial weakness — can the person smile? Has their mouth or eye drooped? *Arm weakness — can they raise both arms? *Speech problems — can they speak clearly and understand what you say? *Test all three symptoms and if the person has failed any one, call 999.

Can it be prevented?

Some people are more at risk of stroke than others, and while you can’t change your genes or your age, lifestyle factors are important. The best advice is don’t smoke, keep cholesterol and weight under control, drink sensibly, exercise and take medication your doctor prescribes for conditions such as heart disease or diabetes. Getting your blood pressure checked is also important as high blood pressure puts extra strain on the blood vessels. You should also tackle stress, which can take an unexpected physical toll on the body.

How is stroke treated?

Treatment on arrival at hospital may include brain scans, function tests on swallowing and movement, oxygen monitoring and glucose and blood pressure tests. In some cases drugs are given to tackle the effects of stroke, prevent complications and help treat risk factors in the hope of preventing a further stroke occurring.

What are the after-effects?

Stroke can be devastating because it is usually sudden and the effects on the body are immediate. It can affect not only physical functions, but also how a person thinks and feels. Recovery can be a long haul, and many people never regain their former health. Most need an extended period of rehabilitation to ‘re-learn’ lost functions such as talking and walking. But the brain is adaptable and in the months or years following stroke it is often able to recover some function.

Caring for a stroke patient

Caring for somebody after a stroke can be frustrating. The person you love may have changed dramatically, be unable to communicate and be mentally and physically demanding. My advice would be to take the help and support that’s available and make time for yourself.

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