Stroke "What Happens During a Stroke"

Stroke Prevention and Diagnosis
Stroke is preventable and treatable. A better understanding of the causes of stroke has helped people make lifestyle changes that have cut the stroke death rate nearly in half in the last two decades.

While family history of stroke plays a role in your risk, there are many risk factors you can control:
If you have high blood pressure, work with your doctor to get it under control. Managing your high blood pressure is the most important thing you can do to avoid stroke.

If you smoke, quit.

Risk factors you can control:
If you have diabetes, learn how to manage it. Many people do not realize they have diabetes, which is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

If you are overweight, start maintaining a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

Risk factors you can control:
If you have high cholesterol, work with your doctor to lower it. A high level of total cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for heart disease, which raises your risk of stroke.

Physicians have several diagnostic techniques and imaging tools to help diagnose stroke quickly and accurately. The first step in diagnosis is a short neurological examination, or an evaluation of the nervous system.

When a possible stroke patient arrives at a hospital, a health care professional, usually a doctor or nurse, will ask the patient or a companion what happened and when the symptoms began. Blood tests, an electrocardiogram, and a brain scan such as computed tomography or CT, or magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, will often be done.

One test that helps doctors judge the severity of a stroke is the standardized NIH Stroke Scale, developed by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health, or NIH. Health care professionals use the NIH Stroke Scale to measure a patients neurological deficits by asking the patient to answer questions and to perform several physical and mental tests.

Other scales include the Glasgow Coma Scale, the Hunt and Hess Scale, the Modified Rankin Scale, and the Barthel Index.

Health care professionals also use a variety of imaging devices to evaluate stroke patients. The most widely used imaging procedure is the computed tomography or CT scan, also known as a CAT scan. A CT scan creates a series of cross-sectional images of the head and brain.

Because it is readily available at all hours at most major hospitals and produces images quickly, the CT scan is the most commonly used diagnostic technique for acute stroke. A CT scan also has unique diagnostic benefits. It will quickly rule out a hemorrhage, and can occasionally show a tumor that might mimic a stroke.

A CT scan may even show evidence of early infarction -- an area of tissue that is dead or dying due to a loss of blood supply. Infarctions generally show up on a CT scan about six to eight hours after the start of stroke symptoms.

If a stroke is caused by hemorrhage, or bleeding into the brain, a CT scan can show evidence of this almost immediately after stroke symptoms appear. Hemorrhage is the primary reason for avoiding certain drug treatments for stroke, such as thrombolytic therapy, the only proven acute stroke therapy for ischemic stroke.

Thrombolytic therapy cannot be used until the doctor can confidently diagnose the patient as suffering from an ischemic stroke because this treatment might increase bleeding and could make a hemorrhagic stroke worse.

Another imaging technique used for stroke patients is the magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scan. MRI uses magnetic fields to detect subtle changes in the content of brain tissue. One effect of stroke is the slowing of water movement, called diffusion, through the damaged brain tissue, and MRI can show this type of damage within the first hour after the stroke symptoms start.

MRI and CT are equally accurate for determining when hemorrhage is present. The benefit of MRI over a CT scan is more accurate and earlier diagnosis of infarction, especially for smaller strokes. Also, MRI is more sensitive than CT for detecting other types of brain disease, such as brain tumor, that might mimic stroke. However, MRI cannot be performed in patients with certain types of metallic or electronic implants, such as pacemakers for the heart.

Although increasingly used in the emergency diagnosis of stroke, MRI is not immediately available at all hours in most hospitals, where CT is used for acute stroke diagnosis. Also, MRI takes longer to perform than CT, and may not be performed if it would significantly delay treatment.

The information provided should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies.

Copyright Information: Public domain information with acknowledgement given to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

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