A stroke is a medical emergency. When an artery to the brain blocks or ruptures, brain cells in the area die from lack of oxygen. Sometimes this can result in death. Symptoms or warning signs of a stroke include sudden blurred or decreased vision in one or both eyes, numbness, weakness or paralysis in the face, arm or leg, difficulty speaking or understanding, dizziness, difficulty swallowing and severe headache
A stroke interrupts blood flow to an area of the brain. A blood clot may block a blood vessel or artery, or a blood vessel wall might break. Brain cells in the immediate area are killed because they are deprived of oxygen. This dead area is known as an infarct. Without prompt treatment, the area of brain cells surrounding the infarct will also die.
In 2010, Australians suffered around 60,000 new and recurrent strokes. It is Australia’s second biggest killer after heart disease.
Effects can vary
Both the size and location of the stroke influence which brain functions are lost or affected. Someone who has a small stroke may experience only minor effects, but someone who has a larger stroke may be left paralysed on one side or in a coma. Some people recover completely from less serious strokes, while others die from more severe strokes. People with severe stroke can also make a good recovery.
Transient ischaemic attack
A transient ischaemic attack (TIA) is often called a ‘mini stroke’ and provides a powerful warning that a severe stroke may follow. The symptoms are identical to those of a full stroke, but disappear in a few minutes and last no longer than 24 hours. A TIA can appear hours, days, weeks or months before a full stroke, but is more common in the days or weeks leading up to the stroke. Just like full strokes, TIAs need emergency treatment and should not be ignored.
Stroke is a medical emergency. The longer a stroke remains untreated, the greater the degree of stroke-related brain damage. The signs of both stroke and TIA could be one or a combination of the following:
- Sudden blurred or decreased vision in one or both eyes
- Numbness, weakness or paralysis of the face, arm or leg
- Difficulty speaking or understanding
- Dizziness, loss of balance
- Difficulty swallowing
- Severe headache.
- Facial weakness – can the person smile; have their mouth or eyes drooped?
- Arm weakness – can the person raise both arms?
- Speech difficulty – can the person speak clearly and understand what you say?
- Time to act – act FAST and call 000 immediately.
Reduce your risk of stroke
Stroke risk is influenced by a number of factors. Some of these factors, such as age, gender and family history, cannot be controlled. However, there are a number of risk factors that you can control to reduce your chance of having a stroke.
Lifestyle factors that increase your risk of stroke include:
- High blood pressure
- Cigarette smoking
- High cholesterol level
- Excessive amounts of alcohol
- Being overweight or obese
- A diet high in salt and fat
- Lack of exercise.
Irregular heartbeat can cause stroke
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a risk factor for stroke. AF is the term given to a particular type of irregular heartbeat where the left atrium of the heart beats rapidly and unpredictably. In a healthy heart, all four chambers beat in unison at somewhere between 60 and 100 times per minute. The left atrium of someone with AF can beat irregularly at over 400 times per minute. Untreated, AF can increase the risk of stroke and lead to potential heart failure.
The symptoms of AF include:
- Pounding or fluttering heartbeat, known as heart palpitations
- Dizziness, faintness or light-headedness
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain.
Emergency treatment is crucial
If you experience any symptoms, dial triple zero (000), even if the symptoms don’t last for long. If you have suffered a stroke, emergency medical treatment could save your life and reduce the risk of permanent damage.
Where to get help
If you experience symptoms of a stroke:
- Dial triple zero (000) to call an ambulance, or
- Get to your nearest hospital emergency department
- Your doctor
- National Stroke Foundation StrokeLine Tel. 1800 787 653
Things to remember
- Stroke is a medical emergency.
- A transient ischaemic attack (TIA) can be a warning sign that a large stroke could happen.
- You can reduce your risk of stroke by making some healthy lifestyle changes.
You might also be interested in:
- Acquired brain injury.
- Blood pressure (high) - hypertension.
- Cerebral haemorrhage.
- Dizziness and vertigo.
- Early death - how to reduce your risk.
Want to know more?
Go to More information for support groups, related links and references.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
(Logo links to further information)
The Stroke logo - links to further information
Fact sheet currently being reviewed.
Last reviewed: April 2011
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Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your qualified health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residence and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a qualified health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.
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