What Is a Stroke: Causes, Effects and Recovery


In the United Sates, around 795,000 people have a stroke each year, but what is a stroke? Understanding what strokes are and risk factors can greatly reduce your risk. If you or a loved one has had a stroke, knowing what to do and what your options are for rehabilitation can greatly improve recovery.

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke is the sudden disruption or loss of the normal blood flow to the brain, resulting in damage to the brain tissue. This occurs when blood vessels in the brain burst or are blocked by a clot.

There are many different types of stroke—some more common than others.

  • Ischemic: These strokes occur when the blood flow in the brain, either deep in the interior or in the carotid artery in the neck, is blocked because of a clot that forms in the artery. Ischemic strokes account for more than 80 percent of strokes.
  • Hemorrhagic: These strokes account for only 10 percent of all strokes. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when the walls of an artery in the brain ruptures and blood floods the brain. These are also called a ruptured aneurysm.

What Are the Risk Factors of a Stroke?

There are many risk factors for stroke. Some of them aren’t controllable. Your risk of stroke increases as you age, although they can occur at any time—read Steffany’s story of surviving a stroke at 24.

Your risk also increases if you’ve had a previous stroke. However, there are several strategies for preventing stroke.

  • Watch your blood pressure. High blood pressure is the single most important risk factor for stroke, but it is something you can control through medication and lifestyle changes.
  • Lower bad cholesterol. Lifestyle changes and medication can keep your LDL, or bad cholesterol, at normal levels.
  • Manage diabetes. If you have diabetes, work with your physician to keep your A1C controlled.
  • Exercise. Moderate exercise that causes you to break a sweat can also benefit a number of other stroke risk factors.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke? What Should You Do If Someone Is Having One?

A stroke is a medical emergency. The acronym BE FAST can help you identify signs of stroke and know when to call emergency medical services.

  • B: Balance—is there a sudden loss or change?
  • E: Eyes—is there a change in vision?
  • F: Face—does one side of the face droop when smiling?
  • A: Arm—does one side drift downward when arms are raised?
  • S: Speech—does speech sound slurred?
  • T: Time to call 911 if you observe these signs.

Maximizing Recovery After a Stroke

After a stroke, getting the right rehabilitation can make a substantial difference in your recovery.

According to the 2016 adult stroke rehabilitation guidelines released by the American Heart Association, whenever possible, stroke patients should be treated at an inpatient rehabilitation facility rather than a skilled nursing facility.

How long it takes to recover after a stroke varies between individuals, but it’s generally believed that the most rapid recovery takes place in the first 90-120 days.

Common Effects of Stroke

Effects of a stroke vary, and the severity is unique to each stroke survivor.

Physical impairments

After a stroke, physical impairments may include:

  • Weakness in certain limbs or muscles
  • Spasticity, or high muscle tone, which results in stiffness
  • Flaccidity, or low muscle tone, which causes a limb to be limp
  • Reduced feeling in a limb or abnormal movement
  • Problems with balance or coordination

Physical therapists help patients relearn how to move and balance and how to use assistive devices.

Communication, cognitive and swallowing difficulties

A stroke may also affect a patient’s speech, swallowing and cognitive abilities. Effects may include:

  • Dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing
  • Apraxia affects motor planning skills, which can affect movement or the ability to form words appropriately
  • Aphasia, or the loss of ability to understand or express speech
  • Cognitive impairments that include challenges with memory, attention and problem solving.

Speech-language pathologists can help patients with these effects through exercises and technology designed to strengthen swallowing muscles. They can also teach communication techniques to help patients learn to find words or work around speech impairments, as well as techniques to improve cognition.

Activities of daily living

After a stroke, many survivors may struggle with completing the activities that make up everyday life, or activities of daily living. Examples of these activities include eating, bathing, dressing or using the toilet. Occupational therapists can help patients identify activities of daily living that are important to them—be it self care, hobbies like gardening or returning to work—and help them practice these tasks and learn new approaches to complete them.

How Can Rehabilitation Help?

At an inpatient rehabilitation hospital, patients typically receive a minimum of three hours of therapy a day, five days per week. This therapy is a blend of physical, occupational and speech therapy designed to meet your unique needs and improve skills, and progresses as a patient progresses during their stay.

The amount of time spent in therapy means patients are able to receive proper repetition of exercises and functional tasks—a key factor in progressing in ability and strength. The advanced technology found in rehabilitation hospitals also helps therapists maximize a patient’s therapy session.

Patients at inpatient rehabilitation hospitals are also seen by rehabilitation physicians, and are cared for by registered nurses 24/7 to help manage complex medical needs. Dietitians, case managers and pharmacists are also members of a patient’s interdisciplinary care team, meaning no aspect of a patient’s recovery is neglected.

Older stroke patients should also have the option to receive inpatient rehabilitation. Because therapy can begin at the bedside and is tailored to a patient’s unique needs, rehabilitation can meet a patient where they are in their recovery journey.

For more information on Encompass Health inpatient rehabilitation hospitals, find a location near you.