New year, new you! Check out our at-home lab tests Shop Now

What causes a stroke?

  • A stroke is a medical emergency in which blood flow to the brain is interrupted.
  • Stroke can leave permanent brain damage in minutes.
  • For 4 out of 5 stroke victims, the stroke itself is the first symptom.
  • A non-invasive carotid artery screening uses ultrasound technology to measure the blockage in the main artery taking blood to the brain.
  • Read below about the causes of a stroke.

Medically reviewed by Dr. Andy Manganaro, MD, FACS, FACC

Published on 5/24/2021

Many people use the term “stroke” but don’t fully understand what’s happening in the body when they refer to this medical emergency. A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either because of a blockage or a blood vessel hemorrhage. Blood carries oxygen, and your brain needs oxygen to function. Damage can occur in minutes, so it’s crucial to get medical attention immediately if you or a loved one is having a stroke. Read on to learn more about strokes and how you can prevent them.

What causes a stroke?

A stroke is a medical emergency in which blood flow to the brain is interrupted, causing the affected brain cells to die from lack of oxygen — all in a matter of minutes. Strokes are life-threatening events and must be taken seriously, so it’s important to understand why they occur and what you can do to prevent them.

There are two reasons a stroke could occur:

  • A blood clot or plaque buildup forms in a blood vessel and blocks blood flow. (This is the most common type of stroke, called an ischemic stroke.)
  • A blood vessel ruptures and bleeds. (This is called a hemorrhagic stroke.)

In either case, part of the brain is unable to get oxygen from the blood, which is essential for it to function. Because the brain is a complex organ responsible for all of your emotional, intellectual and physical functions, this can have a significant effect on your abilities in the future depending on the duration and severity of the stroke.

Sometimes the blockage passes quickly, which is called a “transient ischemic attack” or TIA. It’s commonly referred to as a “mini-stroke,” because it has similar signs but is only experienced briefly. A person could feel relatively normal after a TIA, so many people underestimate the gravity of “mini-strokes.” But they are not harmless. People who experience a TIA should call a doctor immediately. Even a short blockage of blood to the brain can be damaging long-term, and a full-blown stroke could be close behind.

Most strokes (87%) occur due to blood clots1. To understand why those blockages occur, you have to understand risk factors.

Stroke Risk Factors

Though anyone can have a stroke at any age, people with certain conditions or chronic illnesses are more at risk, particularly with a cardiovascular issue like carotid artery disease. With carotid artery disease, plaque builds up in the arteries and constricts blood flow. That plaque can also break off and form a clot, blocking blood flow to the brain. It’s important to know ahead of time if you have a disease like carotid artery disease so you can manage it well and lower your risk of stroke.

Risk factors for stroke include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease (carotid artery disease, arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, etc.)
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Birth control pills (oral contraceptives)
  • A history of TIAs
  • High cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Personal or family history of stroke or cardiovascular disease

If you have any of these risk factors, a non-invasive, painless stroke and cardiovascular risk screening can provide you with early detection of a carotid artery blockage or peace of mind. Learn more about Carotid Artery Screenings

What are the signs of a stroke?

A few unique symptoms often come with a stroke; notably, all are sudden in nature. If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these, call 9-1-1 immediately:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or difficulty understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or lack of coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

How can I tell if someone is having a stroke?

Strokes are usually sudden, and they are life-threatening. It’s therefore very important to know the warning signs in case you’re ever around someone experiencing a stroke. If you think someone might be having a stroke, look for three problems: drooping face, numbness on one side and slurred or strange speech.

When assessing someone quickly, it helps to remember the acronym “F.A.S.T.”2:

F- Face. Ask the person to smile. Does one side droop?

A- Arm. Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

S- Speech. Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

T- Time. If you see any of these signs, call 9-1-1 right away.

Are strokes preventable?

Even though strokes are the no. 5 cause of death in the US, the CDC says that 80 percent of them are actually preventable3. This is primarily because the risk factors for stroke are largely preventable with lifestyle choices and a fully informed understanding of your own health.

The primary way to prevent strokes is to be proactive about your lifestyle choices. To do that, you have to be informed about your health. Talk to your doctor about any risk factors you may already exhibit or are more likely to develop so that you can make a plan that intentionally addresses those issues. Be sure to get regular physicals so that you and your doctor will stay up-to-date on any changes that may occur.

In addition to getting annual checkups, talk to your doctor about health screenings to check for risk of conditions like carotid artery disease. These screenings can illuminate issues you didn’t even know you had, giving you a much stronger understanding of your overall health and what your body needs going forward. Life Line Screening offers a variety of quick, non-invasive screenings to determine your risk for conditions like cardiovascular disease, liver and kidney disease, diabetes and more.

After you have a clear, accurate picture of your overall health, you can come up with a plan for how you’re going to maintain a healthy lifestyle and prevent medical emergencies. It doesn’t happen by accident, so you have to come up with practical ways to incorporate healthier choices into your everyday life.

Your doctor may recommend specific practices for your needs, but there are several preventive measures3 you can take to lower your risk of stroke:

  • Understand and control your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar (these issues may require medication)
  • Quit smoking
  • Avoid excessive drinking (more than 2 drinks per day for men, 1 per day for women)
  • Exercise regularly, even if it’s as simple as a daily walk
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • Avoid foods high in sodium, trans fats and cholesterol

The Bottom Line

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either because of a blockage or a blood vessel hemorrhage. Blood clot blockages are the most common cause. The good news is, about 80 percent of strokes are preventable through healthy lifestyle choices, regular checkups and health screenings. Schedule a screening with Life Line Screening today that could help prevent a medical emergency later.


Carotid Artery

Share this post