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A stroke is a disease that is caused by damage to the blood vessels in the brain.

A diagram showing two different types of strokes

It occurs when a blood vessel becomes blocked (known as an ischaemic stroke) or bursts, causing bleeding into the brain (known as an haemorrhagic stroke).

A blood clot or bleeding in the brain disrupts its blood supply. Because the affected part of the brain is unable to receive the oxygen and nutrients it needs, the cells start dying which can lead to permanent brain damage and even death. While several conditions can contribute to the development of a stroke, it’s important to note that in many cases lifestyle changes can help eliminate certain stroke causes and risk factors.

According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, it is the third cause of death and is a leading cause of disability in South Africa. Additionally, 11 people in South Africa will suffer a stroke every hour.

What are its symptoms?

Stroke symptoms occur as the brain is deprived of blood. Look out for these warning signs:

  • Sudden paralysis or loss of sensation down one side of the face or body – one arm may not be able to lift or one side of the face may droop
  • A sudden, severe headache, which may be followed by a loss of consciousness, can be signs of a haemorrhagic stroke. Headache can be accompanied by vomiting.
  • Difficulty speaking, slurring words or problems with understanding
  • Blurred vision, seeing double, loss of vision or suddenly dim vision (particularly in one eye)
  • Loss of coordination and difficulty walking and balancing.

How is it diagnosed?

Stroke symptoms should always be treated as an emergency and you should seek medical assistance immediately.

A stroke diagnosis will usually entail a physical examination in which the doctor will ask the patient or their family members about what symptoms were present, whether it was preceded by trauma to the head, and take a medical history.

A CT (computerised tomography) scan in the emergency unit will be able to show whether there is bleeding in the brain. This imaging test will also be able to indicate the type of stroke that has occurred. A neurologist may also order a MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan, blood tests or a cerebral angiogram.

What are your treatment options?

Stabilising the patient is the first step in stroke treatment. The Heart and Stroke Foundation explains that in patients whose stroke is caused by a blood clot, clot-dissolving medication may be administered within three hours of the stroke. However, emergency surgery may be necessary for haemorrhagic strokes to control the bleeding and decrease pressure in the brain.

In cases of ischaemic stroke, acute treatment is aimed at removing the blockage. 

Once the patient is stable, treatment focuses on preventing another stroke and, with the assistance of a multidisciplinary medical team, on rehabilitation and recovery, the success of which will depend on the extent of the damage that occurred to the brain.

Can it be prevented?

Stroke prevention starts with managing your modifiable risk factors, of which high blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the biggest culprits. The Heart and Stroke Foundation stresses the importance of ‘knowing your numbers’ – that is, finding out your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose and body mass index (BMI). Keeping these within the healthy range will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke – speak to your doctor about possible solutions if your numbers spell trouble.

It’s also important to quit smoking, limit alcohol intake, eat healthily and exercise regularly. In more high-risk cases, your doctor may recommend taking aspirin as a blood thinner.

What to do now
Clicks Clinics will help you ‘know your numbers’ with their wide range of screening tests. These include:

  • Blood Pressure (BP) Test
  • Cholesterol Testing and Consultation
  • Lipogram Blood Test (to determine different types of cholesterol)
  • Clicks Full Basic Screening (BP, Body Mass Index or BMI, meal guide and exercise plan)
  • Clicks Screening Measurements only (BP and BMI)
  • Clicks Comprehensive Screening (BP, BMI, Glucose and Cholesterol screening, plus meal and exercise plan)

To make an appointment at a Clicks Clinic, call 0860 254 257 or visit Clicks Clinics online.

For more info
The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in January 2015