Stroke - a young person's guide

Written by: 
Monica Lalanda, an Emergency Medicine doctor. Monica is also a medical writer and illustrator

The changes brought about by a stroke are very sudden. In the space of a few seconds a person can go from being reasonably well and independent to being very ill and disabled.

The alteration takes the person and all his or her family by surprise, and this makes it more difficult to cope with.

If someone close to you has a stroke, you might find it hard to understand what is going on anchor] or what will happen next [anchor]. Getting information about it might help you deal with all the changes a little better.

What is a stroke?

A stroke means sudden damage to the brain.[1]

The brain controls everything you do - your movements, your speech, the way you think and what you feel.

To work properly, the brain needs the oxygen that is carried in your bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid.. The brain is divided into different areas and each of them is in charge of a body function. If something stops the bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. from arriving in one part of your brain, then the brain cells in that part are damaged or even destroyed, and cannot work properly. This is what we call a stroke. The effects of the lack of oxygen are immediate.

There are two ways in which a stroke can happen:

  • There might be a small clot in a bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. vessel, causing a blockage
  • A bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. vessel might burst.

In both cases the bloodA fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. supply to your brain is interrupted, and this causes the symptoms of the stroke.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

Stroke symptoms depend on the part of the brain affected and the size of the damaged area. If a person has a stroke, symptoms can include:

  • Weakness in parts of the body - usually, half of the face and half of the body, for example the right side of the face, the left arm and the left leg. The body is often affected on the opposite side to the face because of the special way the brain is wired; each side of the brain controls the same side of the face and the opposite side of the body
  • Paralysis of part of the body - this means the person is completely unable to move that part of the body
  • The person may be unable to understand what people say - as if they were talking an unknown foreign language
  • The person may be unable to say what he or she thinks or simply be unable to think, and become very confused
  • The person might lose part of his or her sight, have difficulties with balance or be unable to swallow
  • The person might have a problem with control of the bladderThe organ that stores urine. or bowels - this means that they cannot control when they need to go to the bathroom and may pass water (urinate) or empty their bowels without realising. If people wet or soil themselves like this, it is called 'being incontinent'.

What is a 'mini-stroke'?

Sometimes people have a 'mini stroke', which means that the symptoms are not permanent and they get better within 24 hours. The person should see a doctor immediately to find out why it happened and to get treatment to stop a full stroke happening.

How do I know when someone has had a stroke?

If you think someone may have had a stroke, there is an easy test you can do called FAST. If you try this test and get the responses below, the person may have had a stroke.

  • Face: Ask the person to smile. The two sides of the face look different
  • Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. One of them doesn't move or looks weaker
  • Speech: the person doesn't seem to understand what you say or cannot answer back properly.
  • Time to call for emergency medical help.[1]

What should I do?

If you think a person has had a stroke, get help immediately. Some strokes can be treated effectively, but treatment is only successful if it's given very soon after the stroke.

Will a person who has a stroke get better?

During the first few weeks, the symptoms will usually improve to some extent that everyone notices and the person who has had the stroke may get a little better, but after that the process of recovery becomes slow and can last months or even years.

It is very difficult to say in advance whether things will ever be the same as they were before the stroke, and in most cases some disabilities remain. It all depends on how big the stroke is, and how large an area of the brain it affects.

The treatment depends on the type of stroke. The person will need specialised help called physiotherapyThe use of physical therapies such as exercise, massage and manipulation. to recover some lost physical skills.

What can I do to help if a person has a stroke?

  • Try to remain optimistic. Most people who have a stroke do get better after some time, even if it takes months. Most people who have a stroke suffer depression - this means that they are very sad most of the time, even if they try not to be. Being sad can easily spread to all the family. It helps if you can be positive and cheerful.
  • Be as patient as you can possibly be. Imagine how frustrating it might be to need help and extra time for small tasks that even little children can manage.
  • If the person who has had the stroke lives at home, you might see some changes in the food provided for family meals. Even if you think these changes are a nuisance, try to adjust without too much fuss - the changes might be good for you, too!

How could I avoid having a stroke?

If you witness how devastating a stroke can be, you may start to worry about having a stroke yourself. Strokes are far more common at an old age but they can happen to anyone. It is unlikely that you will need to worry, because most strokes do not run in the family.

Whether you have a relative with a stroke or not, however, there are several things that anybody can do to make a stroke less likely. These include:

  • Stopping smoking. Smoking doubles the risk of a stroke
  • Avoiding drugs. Some drugs - including cocaineA narcotic drug extracted from coca leaves., heroine, amphetamines or 'crack' - could trigger a stroke
  • Limiting the amount of alcohol you drink. One or two units of alcohol per day seems to be fine, but more than this may increase your chances of a stroke Any sudden neurological problem caused by a bleed or a clot in a blood vessel. [2]
  • Eating a balanced diet and avoiding foods high in salt and fatOne of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body.
  • Exercising regularly
  • Trying to avoid stressRelating to injury or concern..[3]
References: 
  1. 'What is a stroke?' The Stroke Association. Link
  2. Goldstein LB. Is There a Causal Relationship Between the Amount of Alcohol Consumption and Stroke Risk? Stroke 2006; 37: 1-2. Link
  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) Stroke Information Page. Link