The consequences of a stroke can be severe and life-changing. Dan Parton reports.

In this article:

  1. The cause and types of stroke
  2. The symptoms and effects of a stroke
  3. Recovery from a stroke
  4. Who is at risk?
  5. Preventative steps

The cause and types of stroke

A stroke is caused when the blood supply to a part of the brain is cut off. An attack can come on rapidly, yet the results can vary widely. The signs of a stroke are easy to spot, and include facial weakness, numbness or paralysis and slurred speech.

Some 150,000 people in Britain suffer a stroke each year. Sudden and potentially deadly, it destroys brain cells and tissues, starving them of vital oxygen carried through the bloodstream. This is caused in one of two ways – blockages and bleeds.

A stroke caused by blockage is called an ischaemic stroke and happens when a clot blocks an artery carrying blood to the brain. The second type occurs when a blood vessel bursts causing bleeding into the brain. This is called a haemorrhagic stroke.

The symptoms and effects of a stroke

The symptoms and effects depend on the severity of the stroke and which part of the brain suffered the attack. They range from a transient ischaemic attack (TIA) or mini-stroke, which has the hallmarks of a full stroke but can pass within 24 hours, to a full stroke, which can cause death. A mini-stroke is an indicator that there is a risk of a full stroke, and medical attention should be sought urgently, even if the condition passes.

The effects of a stroke can be wide ranging, and include a number of common problems. These include:

  • Paralysis or weakness (hemiplegia). This is one of the easiest signs of a stroke to recognise and usually affects one side of the body.
  • Difficulties with speech and language. Forming words, speaking, reading and writing are all impaired, and victims may struggle to understand what people say to them.
  • Loss of balance, either through the effects of paralysis, or because the stroke has affected that part of the brain.
  • Changes to eyesight. If the stroke affects the part of the brain that processes sight, then it could lead to double vision or a reduction in their field of vision.
  • Mood swings. Depression, anger and loss of confidence are all likely and people may act out of character. They may also experience a loss of inhibitions.
  • Difficulties swallowing. Almost half the people who suffer a stroke may experience some difficulty swallowing, which could lead to choking. All hospitals will do a ‘swallow’ test on stroke victims and will only let patients eat and drink when they are confident they can swallow.
  • Loss of feeling and sensation. Some people might find that they become very sensitive to colour, touch or light. Others may feel a reduction in sensation, meaning they don’t feel any pain from heat or sharp objects.
  • Loss of short-term memory. It may also affect the thought process and make it hard for people to concentrate.
  • Tiredness. Many stroke sufferers experience fatigue and have difficulty sleeping for the first few weeks post-stroke.
  • Perception. Victims may not recognise ordinary, everyday objects, or be unsure how to use them.
  • Incontinence. Many people affected by a stroke may have difficulty in controlling their bladder and bowels. But this may only be temporary and sufferers should regain control within a couple of weeks.

Recovery from a stroke

Although as many as 1 in 3 people make significant improvements within a month of a stroke, it may take a long time to recover, and some never will recover fully.

A quick assessment, taken rapidly after the stroke, can help to evaluate the severity and pinpoint the areas affected, and could lead to a better recovery. The assessment will also include a check on the heart and lungs in case the stroke has affected the part of the brain that controls circulation and breathing.

Who is at risk?

Strokes are indiscriminate in whom they strike – anyone at any time may be susceptible.

But some people are more at risk than others:

  • Older people. Due to a natural hardening of the arteries with age, older people are most at risk.
  • Men under 75 are also more at risk than women.
  • Lifestyle choices. Poor diet, smoking, heavy alcohol drinking which contribute to conditions such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease.

An existing family history of strokes could also raise the chances of one occurring. Being of Asian, African or Caribbean background also increases your risk, although that is partly due to higher incidents of diabetes and heart disease in those groups.

Preventative steps

The risk of suffering a stroke can be minimised through a number of lifestyle choices. For example, by:

  • Stopping smoking. Smoking increases blood pressure and makes the blood thicker. Toxins in tobacco smoke are also absorbed into the body and damage blood vessel walls.
  • Eating a balanced diet. A diet rich in fatty foods could also contribute to a stroke, because it causes cholesterol to build up in the blood, and narrows arteries.
  • Not binge drinking. Excessive alcohol consumption in a short space of time can cause a blood vessel in the brain to burst. Regular heavy drinking also raises blood pressure.
  • Exercising regularly. Arteries can fur up due to an inactive lifestyle, and regular exercise helps keep the heart healthy and helps you manage your weight.

For more information on strokes, the affects and aftercare, visit the Stroke Association at