Coping With A Stroke

An introduction to stroke-related topics, including basic medical information, an overview of the recovery process, and suggestions for preventing another stroke.

A stroke is a type of brain injury, and symptoms depend on the part of the brain that was affected. People who survive a stroke often have weakness on one side of the body or trouble moving, talking, seeing, or thinking. Most strokes are ischemic (is-KEE-mic) strokes caused by reduced blood flow to the brain when blood vessels are blocked by a clot or become too narrow for blood to get through. Brain cells in the area die from lack of oxygen. In another type of stroke, called hemorrhagic (hem-or-AJ-ic) stroke, the blood vessel isn’t blocked; it bursts, and blood leaks into the brain, causing damage.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) has the same symptoms as a stroke, but it usually lasts only from a few seconds to a day, and it doesn’t cause permanent brain damage. A TIA is an important warning signal, however, and requires immediate medical attention to help prevent an actual stroke.

Recovering From Stroke

Strokes can be frightening for everyone involved, but it helps to remember that stroke survivors usually have at least some spontaneous recovery or natural healing, and they often recover further with the help of rehabilitation. Because stroke survivors often have complex rehabilitation needs, progress and recovery are different for each person, but the process usually includes:

  • Treatment
  • Spontaneous recovery
  • Rehabilitation
  • Return to community living

Treatment

Stroke treatment begins in a hospital with “acute care,” which usually takes place in a hospital. This first step includes helping a stroke victim survive, preventing another stroke, and taking care of any other medical problems.

The aim of ischemic stroke treatment is improving blood flow. Studies indicate that the use of drugs to dissolve clots may limit brain damage by restoring blood flow. These drugs work best when given within the first few hours of a stroke, which is why recognizing symptoms and seeking emergency medical care are so important.

Treatment of hemorrhage, which causes blood to collect in the brain, is complex. The aim is to correct the cause of bleeding and try to limit further damage. Occasionally, surgery is needed to drain blood, reduce pressure on the brain, and increase circulation to the injured areas. If doctors detect an aneurysm or blood vessel malformation, surgery may be required to halt bleeding in the brain.

Spontaneous Recovery

Most stroke survivors go through a period of spontaneous recovery. Soon after the stroke, some abilities that were lost usually start to come back. This process is quickest during the first few weeks, but it may continue for a long time.

Rehabilitation

Post-stroke rehabilitation helps your loved one maintain current abilities and regain some lost abilities. It should probably begin while your loved one is still in acute care and then continue afterward through either a formal rehabilitation program or individual rehabilitation services. You, your loved one, and the hospital staff may make many decisions about rehabilitation before discharge from acute care.

Return to Community Living

The last stage in stroke recovery begins with the return to community living after acute care or rehabilitation. This stage can last for a lifetime as the stroke survivor and his or her loved ones learn to live with the effects of the stroke. This may include finding new ways to perform common tasks or making up for damage to one part of the body by learning to use another. For example, your loved one might need to wear shoes with Velcro closures instead of laces, or learn to write with his or her opposite hand.

Preventing Another Stroke

People who have had a stroke have an increased risk of another stroke, especially during the first year after the original stroke. The risk of stroke goes up with age, high blood pressure (hypertension), high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cigarette smoking, heavy alcohol use, and drug abuse. People who have previously suffered a transient ischemic attack also face an increased risk of stroke. While some of these risk factors—such as age—cannot be altered, many can be reduced with medicines or lifestyle changes. Ask a doctor for guidance in preventing another stroke, and work with your loved one to make healthy changes in his or her lifestyle.

© Copyright FamilyCare America, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Adapted from Recovering After a Stroke, AHCPR Publication No. 95-0664, prepared by the Agency for Healthcare Policy and Research.

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