Emma Hammett A qualified nurse, author and first aid trainer with over 30 years’ healthcare and teaching experience A stroke (or CVA Cerebral Vascular Accident) is a disturbance to the blood flow of the brain caused by a blockage or bleed in one of the blood vessels supplying the brain. Blockages to the brain are
A stroke (or CVA Cerebral Vascular Accident) is a
disturbance to the blood flow of the brain caused by a blockage or bleed in one
of the blood vessels supplying the brain. Blockages to the brain are a lot more
common than bleeds. Both have the same symptoms.
A stroke can happen to anyone of any age, although they are more common in older people. Some people are able to make a full recovery following a stroke, others experience life-changing damage and sadly for some
What are you looking for?
Face – can they smile and show their teeth?
Arms – can they raise their arms and keep them held there, or does one arm fall?
Speech – can they
repeat a phrase you give them? Is their speech slurred? Do they have difficulty
Tongue – if they
stick their tongue out, is it crooked to one side or another?
Unequal pupils are another indication that the casualty
could be experiencing a stroke.
Other potential symptoms
- paralysis or weakness on 1 side of the body
- a sudden and very severe headache resulting in a
blinding pain unlike anything experienced before
- sudden blurring or loss of vision
- difficulty understanding what others are saying
- problems with balance and co-ordination
There are 2 main causes of strokes: Caused by a
blockage or a bleed.
ischaemic – where the blood supply is
stopped because of a blood clot; this accounts for 85% of all cases, or it can
be caused by a build-up of plaque and fatty deposits in the arteries.
If these plaques break away, or if they slow the blood flow
to the extent that it forms a clot, they can block a blood vessel supplying the
brain and cause a stroke.
haemorrhagic – where a weakened blood
vessel supplying the brain bursts
Trans-Ischaemic Attacks (mini-strokes)
A Trans-Ischaemic Attack (TIA) is a related condition which can
cause stroke-like symptoms that resolve fairly quickly. The arteries in the
brain have become blocked by fatty plaques (in the same way as with angina in
the heart) and TIAs are warning signs that someone is at high risk of having a
stroke. Any stroke-like symptoms should be taken seriously, and a medical
professional consulted immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent a
full stroke. TIA’s can last from just a few minutes to up to 24 hours.
Rapid response is vital
The quicker someone having a stroke receives treatment, the
less damage is likely to happen.
If someone is showing the signs of a stroke, phone an
ambulance immediately and get them to a specialist Stroke Unit as soon as
possible. Time is critical– if the stroke is caused by a blood clot and they
are able to receive clot-busting drug treatment (Alteplase) within 3 hours, the
symptoms of the stroke can often be reversed.
Treating a stroke
Treatment depends upon the type of stroke you have. It is
also determined by what caused the stroke and which part of the brain was
Mostly strokes are treated with medication. The medication
would target reducing blood pressure, reducing cholesterol and preventing and
dissolving blood clots.
Sometimes, blood clots can be removed in surgery. It is
possible to perform a procedure similar to angioplasty in the heart, where blockages
are removed by inserting a miniature wire into the blocked artery, removing the
blockage and possibly inserting a stent to keep the vessel open and improve
In the case of haemorrhagic strokes, surgery can also treat
brain swelling and reduce the risk of further bleeding.
Recovering from a stroke
Those who survive a stroke can sustain an injury to their
brain leaving them with long-term problems. Some people make a full and swift
recovery, for others it can be a very long and traumatic process.
In some cases a lengthy period of rehabilitation is needed
before the person who has suffered a stroke can fully recover. Sadly, some are
never able to fully regain their former independence and need on-going support
to manage the effects of their stroke. Physiotherapy can be extremely helpful.
Main risk factors for stroke
The risk of suffering from a stroke increases as you get
older. This is due to the natural narrowing and hardening of our arteries as we
age. Strokes are most common in people over the age of 55.
Certain medical conditions can increase your risk of stroke
high blood pressure
An important way to reduce your risk of stroke is to find
out if you have any of these conditions and work with your doctor to manage
Link with the contraceptive pill
Women with risk factors for stroke may not be able to use
contraceptive pills containing oestrogen. This is because high levels of the
female hormone oestrogen can make your blood more likely to clot. However, if
you are concerned about using the pill, or you want to find out more about your
risk of a stroke, speak to your GP.
Health conditions that can affect pregnant women such as
pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes can raise your risk of a stroke. However, routine ante-natal checks should
pick up and treat these issues if they occur. Furthermore, if you have any
health concerns when pregnant, always speak to your midwife or GP immediately.
Some ethnicities are at higher risk of stroke?
People with African, Caribbean or South Asian backgrounds
have a higher predisposition to diabetes, atherosclerosis and high blood
pressure. These underlying medical conditions greatly increase the risk of
Lifestyle choices have a major impact on the risk of stroke.
Too much stress, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, consuming too much salt,
being overweight and eating unhealthy foods, damages blood vessels, increases
blood pressure and dramatically raises the risk of stroke.
Conversely changing lifestyle and making healthy choices to
reduce the stress to blood vessels can substantially reduce the likelihood of
someone experiencing a stroke.
Written by Emma Hammett for First Aid for Life
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