Illustrated X-Ray of a human head showing the brain.


What Is A Stroke Or Brain Attack?

A stroke occurs when blood flow to part of the brain is interrupted. This is why a stroke has recently more often been referred to as a “brain attack.” You may also hear of a stroke referred to as a cerebral vascular accident or CVA. When a blood clot blocks an artery or blood vessel in the brain it is called an ischemic stroke. 80% of all strokes are of this type. The other 20% of strokes are called hemorrhagic strokes, where a blood vessel ruptures and causes bleeding in the brain.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke 700,000 people are afflicted with strokes each year. 500,000 have first strokes and another 200,000 have recurrent strokes. Stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability and is the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer.

Fast Action Is Brain Saving

Whenever someone has a stroke, blood flow is cut off to a part of the brain. The brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients. The longer the blood flow is cut off, the more damage to the brain someone experiences. That is why calling 911 as soon as possible is very important. Starting treatment as soon as possible actually saves as much brain as possible. Some treatments require that they be administered within 30 minutes of the stroke to have the most benefit. The most common symptoms of a stroke are:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness in the face, arms or legs, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, or difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden vision problems, such as blurred vision or partial or complete loss of vision in one or both eyes
  • Sudden dizziness, trouble walking, or loss of balance and coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Other symptoms may include sudden nausea, vomiting, brief loss of consciousness, or decreased consciousness, such as fainting or convulsions.

Some people may experience what is referred to as a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini stroke.” When a TIA occurs, symptoms may be temporary, lasting less than an hour or more persistent lasting up to 24 hours. About 25% of people who have a TIA go on to have a stroke within 5 years, so detection and treatment is very important. If treated properly, the risk of having a stroke can be reduced.

The effects of a stroke depend largely on how much of the brain has been affected. 10% of stroke sufferers recover completely. 25% recover with minor impairments, 40% have moderate to severe impairments that may require special care, 10% require care in a long term care facility, and 15% die shortly after the stroke.

Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors that can increase a person’s chances of having a stroke.

These include:

  • High blood pressure, which increases the risk of stroke four to six times
  • High cholesterol, which doubles the risk
  • Heart disease, which increases the risk six times
  • Having a previous stroke or TIA
  • Smoking, which doubles the risk
  • Heavy drinking is associated with stroke
  • Being overweight is related to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes

Reducing Your Risk

  • Stop smoking
  • Have your cholesterol checked regularly and control it if necessary. Your health care provider can make recommendations for your situation
  • Limit the alcohol you drink
  • Have your blood pressure checked regularly and control it if necessary Your health care provider can make recommendations for your situation
  • Follow your health care provider’s recommendations for changing your diet
  • If you have diabetes, follow your health care provider’s recommendations for managing your disease
  • Follow your health care provider’s recommendations for use of preventative medicines


National Stroke Association

9707 East Easter Lane

Englewood, CO 80112

(800) 787-6537

American Heart Association

(800) 242-8721

American Stroke Association

7272 Greenville Avenue

Dallas, TX 75231

(888) 478-7653

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

P.O. Box 5801

Bethesda, MD 20824

(800) 352-9424

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Mayo Clinic

Cleveland Clinic