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Stroke

Expert reviewer, Dr Ahamad Hassan, Consultant Neurologist and Stroke Physician
Next review due October 2019

A stroke is when the blood supply to your brain is cut off. Around 1.2 million people are living with a stroke in the UK. Most people who get it are over 65, but it can happen at any age. Stroke is the third most common cause of death. It's vital to recognise the symptoms quickly and get treatment in hospital as soon as possible.

Types of stroke

  • Ischaemic stroke. This happens when the blood supply to part of your brain is blocked by a blood clot or a piece of fatty material. It’s the most common type of stroke.
  • Haemorrhagic stroke. This is caused by bleeding inside or around your brain that can happen when a blood vessel bursts.

What increases my risk of having a stroke?

Things that can increase your chance of having a stroke include:

  • smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • not doing enough exercise
  • being overweight or obese
  • regularly drinking too much alcohol
  • using illegal drugs, such as cocaine
  • diabetes
  • a family history of stroke or heart disease
  • atrial fibrillation (an abnormal heartbeat)
  • conditions that affect how your blood clots, such as haemophilia

Complications of stroke

Some strokes can be quite mild and you soon recover, whereas others can be more severe and cause lasting damage. Some can even be fatal.

Complications that can happen after a stroke can include:

  • weakness or paralysis, often on one side of your body
  • difficulty swallowing
  • problems sleeping
  • problems with your speech, reading and writing
  • problems with your sight – you might have double vision or find it hard to see
  • problems with your memory and difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty controlling your bladder and bowel movements (incontinence or constipation)
  • problems having sex
  • changes in your personality and behaviour
  • pain (often in your shoulder)
  • seizures (fits)

How to recognise stroke? – FAST

The symptoms of a stroke usually come on suddenly, within seconds or minutes. A good way to recognise if you or someone you’re with has had a stroke is to use the ‘FAST’ test.

  • Face. If you’ve had a stroke, your face may feel weak and you won’t be able to smile. Your face may also look odd – your mouth or eye may droop down on one side.
  • Arm. You won’t be able to raise your arm and hold it there.
  • Speech. You may have slurred speech or find it difficult to remember the names of common objects.
  • Time to call 999. If you have one or more of these symptoms, or you see them in someone else, get emergency help straightaway.

Other symptoms of stroke vary depending on the type of stroke and the part of your brain it affects. For more information, see our topics on haemorrhagic stroke and ischaemic stroke.

Recovering from stroke

You might need to take medicines or have an operation after a stroke, but that will depend on which type of stroke you have. For more information, see our topics on haemorrhagic stroke and ischaemic stroke.

A stroke can damage your brain so you may need to relearn how to do certain things, or adapt how you do them. This is known as stroke rehabilitation. A multidisciplinary team of health professionals will work out a rehabilitation plan that’s designed to help you regain as much independence as possible. 

Here are some suggestions that may help you while you recover.

  • Think positively and focus on what you want to achieve.
  • Practise the exercises and tasks you’re given but don't overdo them– some days will be easier than others.
  • If you’re not sure why you’ve been asked to do some exercises and tasks, ask. This will help you to stay motivated.
  • Keep in mind that your recovery may be gradual. Don’t be put off if it feels like you’re making slow progress.
  • Get help when you need it but try to do as much as you can for yourself. Some tasks may seem difficult, but the more you can do on your own, the more independent you’ll become.

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Related information

    • Ischaemic stroke. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated 3 December 2015
    • Cardiovascular disease statistics 2015. British Heart Foundation. www.bhf.org.uk, published 8 December 2015
    • National clinical guideline for stroke. Royal College of Physicians. www.rcplondon.ac.uk, published September 2012
    • Stroke and transient ischaemic attack in over 16s: Diagnosis and initial management National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 23 July 2008. www.nice.org.uk
    • Ischemic stroke. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 23 November 2015
    • Haemorrhagic stroke. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated 26 April 2016
    • Hemorrhagic stroke. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 8 January 2015
    • Carotid artery dissection. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 2 September 2015
    • NINDS stroke information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. www.ninds.nih.gov, last modified 26 May 2016
    • Stroke and TIA. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised December 2013
    • Management of patients with stroke: rehabilitation, prevention and management of complications, and discharge planning. Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN), June 2010. www.sign.ac.uk
    • Map of medicine. Stroke and transient ischaemic attack (TIA). International view. London: Map of medicine; 2016 (issue 2)
    • Cerebrovascular event rehabilitation. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, last checked 2 August 2013
    • Stroke rehabilitation in adults. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 12 June 2013. www.nice.org.uk
  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, October 2016
    Expert reviewer, Dr Ahamad Hassan, Consultant Neurologist and Stroke Physician
    Next review due October 2019



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