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What is a stroke? Symptoms, diagnosis and treatment

View profile for Judith Thomas-Whittingham
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Sepsis - new guidelines being published for doctors on how to deal with this deadly condition

What is a stroke? A stroke is when the blood supply to the brain is cut off.  It is a medical emergency and can be life threatening so urgent treatment is essential. It can affect both adults and children.

There are 2 main causes of strokes:

  • The most common cause is where the blood supply to the brain is stopped because of a blood clot (ischaemic stroke)
  • The other less common cause is where a weakened blood vessel supplying the brain bursts (haemorrhagic stroke)

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

The NHS launched a campaign to help to encourage people of the key warning signs of a stroke with the word FAST.

Face - the person’s face may have dropped on one side, or just their eye or mouth.

Arms - they may not be able to lift both arms and keep them there due to weakness or numbness in 1 arm.

Speech - their speech may be slurred or unable to talk at all.  They may also struggle to understand.

Time - it’s time to dial 999 immediately if you see any of these signs or symptoms.

There are other symptoms including loss of balance which may be indicative of a stroke too.  The NHS website gives examples of other none classic symptoms to be aware of.

How can a stroke be diagnosed?

Early treatment of a stroke can be the key to a more favourable outcome. For the most common cause of a stroke, ischaemic stroke, early medical diagnosis and intervention is critical.  Even if your symptoms improve whilst waiting for an ambulance it is important that you still go to hospital for a medical assessment.

If you are suspected of suffering from a stroke then the specialist doctor at the hospital will arrange a number of urgent tests and investigations, including a CT or MRI scan of the brain, a simple test to assess if they can swallow water without resulting in you choking or coughing, an ECG test of your heart, an ultrasound test of your carotid artery and blood tests.

What treatments are available if I have suffered a stroke?

The treatments depend on the type of stroke which you have suffered and this will be determined following the investigations.

Ischaemic strokes

If the stroke is caused by a clot then thrombolysis (injections containing alteplase) can be commenced to radically reduce the effects of the stroke. Thrombolysis should be commenced as soon as possible and NO LATER THAN 4.5 HOURS AFTER THE ONSET OF SYMPTOMS. This is why acting quickly and seeking urgent medical attention by contacting 999 is essential as time is very much of the essence.

If your condition is more severe than you may also need a thrombectomy which is a surgical procedure to remove the blood clot if the clot is located in a large artery in your brain or a carotid endarterectomy if the blockage is in the carotid artery in the neck.

Haemorrhagic strokes

You may require a craniotomy to remove the excessive blood from the brain caused by the burst blood vessel and repair the vessel.  A section of your skull is removed to enable the surgeon access to your brain.  Alternatively, you may require a shunt to be inserted into your brain to drain the excessive fluid to relieve the pressure on the brain (known as hydrocephalus).

Life after a stroke

The effects of a stroke can vary differently from patient to patient depending on a number of factors including a prompt diagnosis and swift treatment of the stroke.  Some people may recover very quickly and with few long term complications although they may still be required to take medication to help reduce the risk of a further stroke occurring.

Unfortunately, many people who have suffered a stroke require long term support and rehabilitation involving many different therapists.  You may need full time care and be prevented from returning to work.

How can we help?

Circumstances that might lead to a medical negligence claim include:

  • Failure by the ambulance service to respond to a patient complaining of stroke symptoms within a reasonable time (typically 18 minutes for a category 2 call)
  • Failure to recognise the symptoms of a stroke
  • Failure to diagnose a stroke
  • Failure to transfer the patient to a specialist stroke hospital, if appropriate
  • Failure to commence thrombolysis within 4.5 hours
  • Delays in arranging therapies following a stroke leading to a worse outcome
  • Failure to prescribe anti-coagulants leading to a stroke

For expert advice call us on 0161 696 6165 and speak to a member of our medical negligence team to discuss your compensation claim today.  Alternatively you can send our clinical negligence team an email via our contact form.