What is stroke?

Stroke, also called brain attack, occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted. Disruption in blood flow happens when a blood clot blocks one of the vital blood vessels in the brain (ischemic stroke), or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, spilling blood into surrounding tissues (hemorrhagic stroke).

The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients in order to function. Even a brief interruption in blood supply can cause problems. Brain cells begin to die after just a few minutes without blood or oxygen.

When brain cells die, you lose brain function. This can cause:

  • Movement problems
  • Speech problems
  • Thinking and memory problems
  • Loss of bowel or bladder control
  • Loss of emotional control
  • Loss of control over other body functions

The abilities affected and how well you recover depend on the size of the stroke and its location in the brain. A small stroke may cause problems such as weakness in an arm or leg. A large stroke may cause paralysis (inability to move part of your body), loss of the ability to speak or even death.

Common stroke symptoms

The most common symptoms of stroke are:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of your body
  • Sudden confusion or problems speaking or understanding
  • Sudden problems with vision, such as dimness or vision loss in one or both eyes
  • Sudden dizziness or problems with balance or coordination
  • Sudden problems with movement or walking
  • Sudden severe headache with no other known cause

If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Treatment is most effective when started right away. Do not ignore any of the warning signs, even if they go away -- take action immediately. Symptoms are different for everyone. You may not have all the symptoms listed. The symptoms of stroke may be similar to symptoms of other medical conditions or problems. Always talk to your doctor for a diagnosis.

According to the National Stroke Association (NSA), it is important to learn the three R's of stroke:

  • Reduce the risk
  • Recognize the symptoms
  • Respond by calling 911 (or your local ambulance service)

Stroke is an emergency and should be treated like one. You have the greatest chance of recovering from a stroke if you get emergency treatment immediately.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. Strokes kill more than 144,000 people in the U.S. every year. Almost 80 percent (8 out of 10) of strokes can be prevented.