Consider this: every major organ including the heart, the kidneys, the liver, the skin and many other tissues—except the brain—can be transplanted. At this point in medical technology, there is no brain transplant. Mercifully so, as the brain is truly what makes each of us unique. To have someone else’s brain would make you a different person indeed. My hope is that modern medicine doesn’t progress that far.
So, the brain you have is the brain you will keep. If the brain suffers a blow externally, a brain injury typically causes symptoms that require extensive rehabilitation. As a speech therapist, I have worked with multiple patients who requires brain rehabilitation after a closed or open head injury. Other therapists—physical and occupational—typically comprise the rehab team to treat head injuries.
A stroke, however, can be considered a brain injury inflicted from the inside.
I had been working with strokes as a speech therapist for twenty years, when I decided it was important to know just why we call it a “stroke.” Since I am the professional who works with language disorders after a stroke, I realized it was my job to know why we use this word.
I looked online, and two different sources told me the same thing: as far back as 500 years ago, when, in just one moment, a person experienced sudden physical changes we now know as a “stroke,” it was said they were stroked by the hand of God. The technical medical term is cerebrovascular accident, or CVA.
Today, while it still causes mysterious symptoms that we now know more about, its sudden onset and resulting deficits may seem a mystery in their own right.
A heart attack is a term widely known and understood. In an attempt to make a stroke more universally understood, it is sometimes called a brain attack.
There are two types of strokes, both of which cause an interruption to the blood flow to the brain, which can cause death to brain cells in minutes: hemorrhagic, whereby there is bleeding inside the brain, and ischemic, which is bulging of a vessel without bleeding. Typically, the hemorrhagic stroke is more severe.
“If you’ve seen one stroke, well, then you’ve seen one stroke.”
Movies and television would have us believe that all strokes cause slurred speech, drooping facial muscles and loss of saliva, as well as one leg and/or arm that doesn’t move very well. In some cases, this is true. In many others, the stereotype is not accurate. I have seen hundreds of strokes in my career, and no two have been identical.
The brain is the master computer of the human body. In the brain, all those wrinkles, folds, worm-looking surfaces and crevices are expertly crafted and finely tuned to complete highly specialized functions. Each area has a specific function, and the damage is determined by where the stroke occurs.
If the right side of the body is weakened by the stroke, then the damage to the brain has occurred on the left side of the brain. Conversely, if the weakness is on the left side of the body, then the stroke has occurred on the right side of the brain. Other strokes can cause weakness over the entire body.
Perhaps you have heard of a TIA, or a “mini-stroke.” A Transient Ischemic Attack is a minor stroke with symptoms that quickly resolve, lasting perhaps only a few minutes. It may or may not show up on testing. It is transient because it is typically there and gone, ischemic (vs. hemorrhagic) because it doesn’t bleed out, and yet it is an attack because is certainly is an assault on the body and the brain, and it is a serious medical issue as well. It may be a warning of a more severe stroke to come, and should not be ignored.
There are several major risk factors for stroke, including:
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- increasing age—especially over age 55
- illicit drug use
- some forms of oral contraceptives
- men have a higher risk of stroke than women, but women are usually older when they have a stroke, and are more likely to die from a stroke than a man.
- African Americans have a higher risk of strokes than people of other races
If you suspect you, or someone with you may be having a stroke, this acronym may help you realize the need for medical attention: FAST
F: facial drooping
A: arm weakness
S: speech difficulty
T: Time to call 911
Prompt medical attention is imperative, even if you are not sure if a stroke is occurring. There are some strokes, that, if treated within the first three hours, can be reversed at least in part by the use of a drug called tPA. Again, it is imperative that medical attention be sought in the first three hours, but always as soon as possible.
There are other symptoms besides those in FAST, including confusion, vision problems in one or both eyes, a sudden, severe headache which may include vomiting, dizziness, or altered consciousness, trouble walking.
There are a few disorders that can mimic symptoms of a stroke, including seizures and migraine headaches. The most important thing to remember if you are having any of the above symptoms is this:
None of these symptoms should be ignored. Seek immediate medical attention. And always, always take good care of your body—and your brain. It’s the only one you will ever have.