Patient Education

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke is a brain attack caused by blocked or broken blood vessels (veins and arteries). The blocked or broken blood vessels keep blood from flowing to your brain. Blood is needed to supply nutrients and oxygen to your brain. Oxygen is very important to the brain. If the supply of blood and oxygen to the brain stops, the brain cells will begin to die – and the result is a stroke. 

How Do You Know if You Might Be Having a Stroke?

If you have any of the following warning signs, you may be having a stroke.

Don’t wait to see if it gets better. You or your family member should call 911 immediately! The sooner treatment for stroke is started, the more likely it will help. Every minute counts.


Face:  Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arm: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?
Time:  If you see any of these signs, call 9-1-1 right away.

Any one of these signs could mean stroke. 

What Are the Risk Factors for Stroke?

There are many factors that can put you at risk for having a stroke. By understanding these risks, you can take care of yourself better. Risks are divided into three categories: personal factors, medical/health-related factors and lifestyle choices.

Personal Factors

The risk factors listed below cannot be changed, but you can take steps to lower your risk.


Stroke can happen to anyone, at any time and any age. But the older you are, the greater the stroke.


Men are more likely to have strokes than women.


Race is related to genetic factors. Genes may predict whether a person may or may not have stroke. For example, African Americans have higher rates of high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.

Family History

You are at higher risk to have a stroke if any of your family members have had:

  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Brain vessel disease also known as cerebrovascular disease.
  • TIA or stroke.

Even though you have no control over these personal factors, you can take steps to lower the risk. There are many things you can do, for instance:

  • Change your diet.
  • Exercise.
  • Change your life style, such as stop smoking.
  • Manage your stress.
  • Work with your doctor to control changeable risk factors.

Medical/Health-Related Factors

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension)

High blood pressure is the number one cause of stroke. Having high blood pressure does not mean that you are tense or nervous. You can be calm and relaxed and still have high blood pressure. When your blood pressure is 140/90 or higher, you have high blood pressure. Your heart and blood vessels become damaged. They become rough and narrow. The small cells that make up blood can get stuck and then form into a clot. Then you can get an ischemic stroke.


If you have diabetes, you have a higher chance of having a stroke. Many people with diabetes may have build-up on the inside walls of the arteries (atherosclerosis). This build up can reduce or stop blood flow to the brain. 

After a stroke, there may be other factors that may make it harder to get well as fast as others who do not have diabetes.

High Cholesterol

Cholesterol is the fatty substance in y​ou​r blood. Fat builds up on the inside wall of the arteries. These deposits are called plaque and the condition is called atherosclerosis.

As plaques get bigger, the blood vessels get narrow and can not carry as much blood to your brain as before.

Carotid Artery Disease

The carotid arteries are the two main arteries that carry blood to your brain and neck. When plaque buildup narrows these arteries, it is called carotid disease. These plaques can break open and cause blood clots to form, and that can lead to a stroke. Carotid endarterectomy is a surgery in which the blood clot or fatty plaque is removed from the carotid artery. This reopens the artery and the blood flow to the brain.

Lifestyle Choices

Birth Control Pills

Birth control pills contain a hormone called estrogen. Estrogen can cause blood to clot more easily. The more estrogen there is in the pill, the higher the risk of having a stroke. Women who are taking birth control pills, who are over the age of 30 years and who smoke are at even higher risk of having a stroke.

Tobacco Products

Using tobacco products by smoking cigarettes or cigars, chewing and snuffing can increase your risk of having a stroke. Of the many chemicals found in tobacco, nicotine is the one that causes you to become addicted, making your body begin to “need” more and more nicotine in order to “feel better.” Nicotine can increase your blood pressure and heart rate. This means that your heart has to work harder than normally for blood to flow to the body. As a result, your heart and blood vessels may become damaged easily.

If you smoke, you are also exposed to another chemical called carbon monoxide.  Together, nicotine and carbon monoxide reduce the amount of oxygen getting to the brain. This increases the risk of having a stroke and many other diseases.

The Stroke Care Team at SCVMC

If you have a stroke, our Stroke Care Team has special training in taking care of patients with brain injuries, including strokes. Their goals are:

  • To help you recover from the effects of a stroke.
  • To prevent complications.
  • To do whatever possible to prevent another stroke from occurring.

By learning more about stroke, the Stroke Care Team works with patients and families to reach these goals.

Support and understanding are important in your recovery. It is important that patients and families are active members in taking care of the patient’s health. We encourage questions and provide information so that patients and families know what to do when they go home. 

Our Stroke Care Team is here to get you the treatment you need.