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Brain Basics: Understand Stroke. Know the Signs. Act in Time.

Nearly 2,500 years ago the father of medicine, Hippocrates, recognized and described a stroke--the sudden onset of paralysis. Until recently, modern medicine had very little control over this particular ailment, but the world of stroke medicine is rapidly changing and new and more advanced therapies are being developed every day. Today, some people who suffer a stroke, can literally walk away from the attack with no or very few disabilities--if they are treated promptly. Doctors are beginning to offer stroke patients and their families the one thing that, until now, has been so difficult to give--HOPE.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is suddenly interrupted or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts, spilling blood into the spaces surrounding the brain cells. In the same way that a person suffering a loss of blood flow to the heart is said to having a heart attack, a person with a loss of blood to the brain or sudden bleeding in the brain can be said to be having a "brain attack."

The symptoms of a stroke include: sudden numbness or weakness(especially on one side of the body); sudden confusion or difficulty in speaking or understanding speech; sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; difficulty in walking, dizziness or loss of balance; or severe sudden headache with no known cause.

Because stroke injures the brain, the person suffering an attack is not able to perceive of his/her own problems correctly. To a bystander, the stroke patient may seen unaware or confused. A stroke victim's best chance for survival and recovery is if someone around him/her recognizes the stroke and acts quickly.

Bystanders should know the signs and act in time. If you believe someone is having a stroke--if they lose the ability to speak, or move an arm or leg on one side, or experience facial paralysis on one side--call 911 immediately. The most common kind of strokes can be treated with a drug called t-PA which dissolves artery-obstructing clots. However, the window of opportunity is only three hours and patients need to get to a hospital within 60 minutes of any attack.

There are two major kinds of stroke. The first, and most common, is called an ischemic stroke and is caused by a blood clot or something which plugs a blood vessel in the brain. Approximately 80 of all strokes are of this type. The second, known as a hemorrhagic stroke, is caused by a blood vessel in the brain that breaks and bleeds into the brain itself. These strokes account for about 20 percent of all stroke cases.

Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in adults. Although stroke is a disease of the brain, it can affect the entire body. The effects of a stroke range from mild to severe and include paralysis, problems with thinking, difficulty with speaking, chronic pain, and emotional problems like depression.

The length of time to recover from a stroke depends, of course, on its severity. Fifty to 70 percent of stroke survivors regain functional independence, but 15 to 30 percent are permanently disabled. Four million Americans are currently living with the effects of a stroke, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate that 700,000 Americans will suffer a stroke each year.

In addition to the lives that are drastically changed, stroke places a tremendous health burden on our society in terms of economic costs. The National Stroke Association estimates stroke costs the U.S. $43 billion a year.

The best treatment for stroke is prevention. There are several risk factors that increase your chance of suffering a stroke. High blood pressure, heart disease, smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and family history of strokes. If you smoke--quit! If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes or high cholesterol, getting them under control--and keeping them at safe levels--will greatly reduce your chances of having a stroke.

If you or someone you know has already suffered a stroke, it is important to understand that many therapy options and medications are available to provide for a faster and more thorough recovery. The best start is to gain as much knowledge as possible about the condition and the treatments. Do your own research to obtain the information you need to make intelligent stroke decisions. As has been said many times, "Knowledge is Power," and this is certainly true when you talk about strokes.

About the Author
Larry Denton is a retired history teacher having taught 33 years at Hobson High in Hobson, Montana. He is currently Vice President of Elfin Enterprises, Inc. an Internet business that provides valuable information and resources on a variety of vital issues.

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