First aid

28 July 2005

Stroke - a serious condition

Stroke, one of the most common neurological disabilities in South Africa, can have a devastating impact on a person’s life.


What is a stroke?
There are many differing definitions of a stroke. A simple description of a stroke is that it could be considered a “brain attack”, which is in many ways similar to a “heart attack”. The brain, like the heart, is supplied with numerous blood vessels, which, among other things, provide the essential nutrients and oxygen that brain cells require. Any disease process that interferes with the blood supply to the brain, thereby damaging or destroying brain cells can lead to a stroke.

What happens when the blood supply to the brain is affected?
The brain cells are extremely sensitive to any changes in their blood supply and can only survive a short time without oxygen and adequate nutrients. After this time, the cells may be damaged and may die. There are two types of injury to the brain cells, known as primary and secondary injury.

Why do people develop stroke?
A stroke may occur when the blood vessels supplying the brain either become blocked or (occasionally) rupture, causing a small bleed in the brain. There are other causes of a stroke, including clots originating from other parts of the body that travel to the brain and block the blood vessels, or there may be a structural problem or weakness in a blood vessel in the brain. Many conditions or habits may increase the likelihood of developing stroke, including hypertension, diabetes, high levels of fat in the blood (hyperlipidaemia), obesity, drug and alcohol use and others.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?
The brain is an incredibly complex organ, which contains various centers and pathways that control our movement and sensory functions, our hearing and sight and our language and speaking ability, to mention but a few. A stroke can affect virtually any area of the brain and the symptoms of a stroke depend on the area(s) and function(s) affected. Additionally, a stroke may be limited in its area or widespread, so the spectrum of possible symptoms is wide. As an example, a person with a stroke may experience one or a combination of the following symptoms:

  • Weakness, numbness or paralysis of an arm or leg on one or both sides of the body
  • Vision problems in one or both eyes
  • Difficulty with communication, speaking and/or understanding
  • Difficulty with swallowing
  • Vertigo, dizziness or loss of balance
  • Severe abrupt headache (usually in the case of a ruptured blood vessel)

What should be done if someone may have experienced a stroke?
A stroke, like a heart attack, is a medical emergency and should be treated as such. Therefore, if you suspect that you may have had a stroke or have any other concerns, please consult your doctor or hospital as a matter of extreme urgency. The period (especially the first few hours) immediately after a stroke is enormously important in minimising the damage to brain cells.

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