A cerebrovascular accident (CVA), or stroke, is a serious and urgent medical event, which happens when the normal flow of blood to the brain is stopped or drastically reduced. Several signs and symptoms warn the body of this event, which we should know how to identify, so we can seek immediate medical assistance. We’ll teach you the basics below.

 

Types of CVA

There are two types of cerebrovascular accidents (CVA):

  • Ischemic stroke, which is caused by a blood vessel in the brain getting blocked by a clot. This can happen for two reasons:

-Because the vessel is very narrow (for example, due to plaque buildup in the atheroma) and the slowed blood flow causes a thrombus. This is called a thrombotic stroke.

-Because a clot breaks loose from another part of the body (typically the heart) and travels through the vessels until reaching the brain, where it becomes trapped in a narrow area and remains blocked. This is called an embolic stroke.

 

  • Hemorrhagic stroke, which is caused by the rupture of a vessel in the brain, thus preventing these areas from receiving normal blood flow. In addition, a hemorrhage irritates brain tissue, causing inflammation. Bleeding leads to a hematoma that displaces normal brain issue. A hemorrhagic stroke is frequently associated with hypertension, the rupture of an aneurysm or the buildup of a protein called amyloid in the arterial walls, especially in the elderly. This makes arteries more susceptible to bleeding.

 

Risk factors:

 

  • High blood pressure.
  • Atrial fibrillation.
  • Hypercholesterolemia and as a result, arteriosclerosis.
  • Family medical history.
  • Cardiac diseases or blood circulation complications.
  • Unhealthy habits: sedentary lifestyle, smoking, alcoholism, obesity…

It’s more common in people who are over 60 years old and those with three or more risk factors.

 

Signs of a CVA

Although a CVA can sometimes occur suddenly, there are a few signs that warn the body of blood flow problems.

 

  • Loss of strength in an arm or hand, or even one side of the face.
  • Sudden loss of vision, in one eye or both.
  • Intense headache for no apparent reason, with sudden onset and greater intensity than usual.
  • Difficulty articulating words, or finding the words to express oneself, or even babbling, which the listener can’t hear or understand.
  • Tingling sensation or loss of feeling in the fingers. Accompanied by numbness in the hands.
  • Vertigo, dizziness or imbalance, as if the ground were moving.

 

These symptoms usually appear right before the CVA, but some nonspecific symptoms may occur days beforehand, warning us that blood flow to the brain isn’t adequate:

  • Sudden changes in the person’s intellectual ability, including forgetfulness, confusion, absent-mindedness…
  • Sudden and inexplicable migraines.
  • Frequent gagging.
  • Clumsiness when walking.
  • Inability to sleep.

 

An early warning approach is key to reducing long-term damage and mortality due to these medical events.

 

Sometimes, transient cerebrovascular accidents occur, which are blood supply failures that are spontaneously resolved within minutes and don’t leave lasting damage. They’re important to note, because they can warn us of a more significant CVA down the road (just as chest pain may warn us of a later heart attack):

  • Memory loss or temporary disorientation.
  • Dizziness or headache.
  • Difficulty following a conversation or paying attention.
  • Drowsiness.
  • Tripping or falling.

 

However, it’s important to emphasize that these warning signs don’t necessarily indicate the onset of a CVA. Some of them are clear (limb paralysis, sudden loss of speech, intense headaches…), but others are much more nonspecific (dizziness, tingling, gagging), especially in the elderly.

 

If you’re experiencing clear warning signs (loss of vision, loss of speech, paralysis), seek immediate medical assistance. If the symptoms are more nonspecific or you’re unsure, consult your family doctor.

Early diagnosis can save lives.

 

References:

  • Content edited by Dr. Trallero.
  • Texas Heart Institute. Signs of a stroke.
  • NISA Hospitals. NeuroRehabilitation Service. Warning symptoms of ICTUS.
  • MD. Health. Dr. Pedro Pinheiro. Medical specialist in Internal Medicine and Nephrology. CVA – CEREBRAL STROKE – CAUSES AND SYMPTOMS.