Cerebrovascular Accident

What is a cerebrovascular accident?

A cerebrovascular accident is also called a CVA, brain attack, or stroke. It occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain is suddenly stopped and oxygen cannot get to that part. This lack of oxygen may damage or kill the brain cells. Death of a part of the brain may lead to loss of certain body functions controlled by that affected part.

What causes a cerebrovascular accident?

A CVA may be caused by any of the following:

  • A piece of fatty plaque (debris) that is formed in a blood vessel breaks away and flows through the bloodstream going to the brain. The plaque blocks an artery which causes a stroke. This is called an embolic stroke.

  • A thrombus (blood clot) formed in an artery (blood vessel) and blocked blood flow to the brain. This is called a thrombotic stroke.

  • A torn artery in the brain, causing blood to spill out. This is called a cerebral hemorrhage or hemorrhagic stroke. It often results from high blood pressure.

  • Blockage of certain small blood vessels inside the brain.

What puts me at a higher risk to have a cerebrovascular accident?

The following factors may put you at a higher risk of having a CVA:

  • Cigarette smoking, cocaine use, or drinking too much alcohol.

  • Diabetes (high blood sugar).

  • You or a close family member has had a stroke.

  • Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) or fatty cholesterol deposits on artery walls.

  • Heart disease, such as coronary artery disease.

  • High blood cholesterol (fat).

  • High blood pressure.

What are the signs and symptoms of a cerebrovascular accident?

Signs and symptoms of a stroke depend upon the part of the brain affected and how much damage occurred. During a CVA, you may have numbness (no feeling), tingling, weakness, or paralysis (cannot move) on one side of the body. You may have trouble walking, swallowing, talking, or understanding. Your vision (sight) may be blurred or doubled. You may have a severe headache, feel dizzy, confused, or pass out. These signs or symptoms may appear within minutes or hours.

How is a cerebrovascular accident diagnosed?

You may have any of the following tests to diagnose CVA:

  • CT scan:

    • This is also called a CAT scan. A special x-ray machine uses a computer to take pictures of your brain. It may be used to look at bones, muscles, brain tissue, and blood vessels.

    • You may be given dye before the pictures are taken. The dye is usually given in your IV. The dye may help your caregiver see the pictures better. People who are allergic to iodine or shellfish (lobster, crab, or shrimp) may be allergic to some dyes. Tell the caregiver if you are allergic to shellfish, or have other allergies or medical conditions.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging: Using magnetic waves, this test, also called an MRI, takes pictures of your head. An MRI may show the cause of a CVA.

  • Carotid ultrasonography

  • Arteriography

How is a cerebrovascular accident treated?

Treatment of a CVA depends upon the type of stroke:

  • Ischemic stroke: An ischemic stroke includes strokes caused by a blockage in a blood vessel.

    • Anticoagulant medicine: Treatment for an ischemic stroke includes anticoagulant medicines which are also called blood thinners. This medicine group keeps clots from forming in the blood.

    • Antiplatelet aggregating medicine: These medicines interact with platelets to prevent blood clots from forming. Platelets are a type of blood cell that join to form clots.

    • Thrombolytic medicine: This medicine group is used in a stroke caused by a clot in a blood vessel. Thrombolytics break apart clots and restore blood flow.

  • Hemorrhagic (bleed) stroke: This type of stroke may require surgery.

Can a cerebrovascular accident be prevented?

  • Take your high blood pressure medicine regularly.

  • Do not smoke or drink too much alcohol. Alcohol is found in beer, wine, liquor, like vodka or whiskey, and other adult drinks. Different people have different ideas about what too much means. It is important to remember that how often you drink is as important as how much you drink.

  • If you have atrial fibrillation (an irregular or fast heart beat), you may need to take antithrombotic medicine. Having a recent heart attack may also require you to take antithrombotics.

  • Keep your blood cholesterol level in a normal range. Eat foods low in fat to decrease the risk of developing plaque (fatty deposits) in your blood vessels. If you have hyperlipidemia (high blood cholesterol level), talk to your caregiver about ways to lower it.

  • Monitor and control your blood sugar level if you have diabetes.

Where can I find support and more information?

A cerebrovascular accident (CVA) is a life-changing disease for you and your family. Accepting that you have had a CVA is hard. You and those close to you may feel angry, sad, or frightened. These feelings are normal. Talk to your caregivers, family, or friends about your feelings. You may also want to join a support group. This is a group of people who also had a CVA. Contact the following for more information:

  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
    P.O. Box 5801
    Bethesda, MD 20824
    Phone: 1-800-352-9424
    Web Address: http://www.ninds.nih.gov
  • National Stroke Association
    9707 E. Easter Lane
    Englewood, CO 80112
    Phone: 1-303-649-9299
    Phone: 1-800-787-6537
    Web Address: http://www.stroke.org

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. To help with this plan, you must learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. You can then discuss treatment options with your caregivers. Work with them to decide what care may be used to treat you. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

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