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Here’s an inside look at a stroke.

Many people think a stroke happens in the heart, but it actually takes place in the brain. And the more you know about strokes, the better prepared you are to prevent them — or take action if one happens.

There are two different types of stroke: ischemic strokes and hemorrhagic strokes.

“When people talk about stroke, they’re often describing an ischemic stroke, where blood flow to the brain is blocked,” says Dr. David Ermak, vascular neurologist at Geisinger. “Hemorrhagic strokes are less common and happen when a weak or ruptured artery leaks blood into the brain.”

Ischemic stroke vs. hemorrhagic stroke

During an ischemic stroke, arteries to your brain get blocked or become narrowed by a blood clot. Ischemic strokes can be classified as either thrombotic or embolic, depending on where the blood clot forms.

In a thrombotic stroke, a blood clot forms in an artery that carries blood to your brain. A clot usually forms in an artery that is already narrowed by plaque buildup.

In an embolic stroke, a blood clot forms in another part of your body, breaks away and is swept toward your brain. Often, these blood clots form in the heart.

During a hemorrhagic stroke, an artery in the brain bursts open or leaks blood into the brain due to high blood pressure, too much blood thinning medication or an outpouching of a blood vessel wall (aneurysms), which are weak spots in blood vessels.

The effects of a stroke can vary depending on where in the brain the stroke occurs and how many brain cells die. A stroke can cause paralysis, difficulty swallowing or talking, memory loss, pain, emotional changes and behavior issues.

“Seeking medical care right away can help you avoid the long-term effects of a stroke,” adds Dr. Ermak.

TIAs – Not something to ignore

Often referred to as a “mini stroke,” a transient ischemic attack (or TIA) happens when a blockage in a blood vessel stops the flow of blood to part of your brain.

Though blood flow is usually blocked for fewer than five minutes, this event is just as serious as a major stroke. TIAs are usually caused by blood clots and are often “warning signs” of an ischemic stroke — in fact, over one-third of people have a stroke within a year of having a TIA.

“Someone having a TIA or a major ischemic stroke might show the same symptoms, so it’s vital to get emergency medical help as soon as possible,” advises Dr. Ermak. “Though TIAs often don’t cause any damage, getting treatment for a TIA can help you work toward preventing a major stroke in the future.”

How to prevent a stroke

Now that you know what’s happening inside the body during a stroke, you’re probably wondering how you can prevent one.

Start by knowing and managing your risk factors, like high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, poor diet, obesity, high cholesterol, AFib (atrial fibrillation) and heart disease. Not sure where to start? Your doctor can help.

“Making positive lifestyle choices like eating a healthy diet, getting daily exercise and managing any current health issues you have can help you avoid a debilitating stroke,” says Dr. Ermak. “The ways you protect your heart health can also help you avoid having a stroke.”

Stroke signs and symptoms to look for

When someone has a stroke, get medical help as soon as possible to restore blood flow to the brain or stop the bleeding.

These symptoms signal that someone may be having a stroke:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness in your face, arm or leg on one side of your body
  • Speech difficulty or inability to understand speech
  • Sudden loss of balance or coordination
  • Vision loss or dimness in one eye
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Sudden and severe headache with no cause

You can also use the the acronym BE FAST to remember the signs:

  • Balance difficulties
  • Eyesight changes
  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 911

“If you notice any of these signs in someone, call 911 immediately,” says Dr. Ermak.

Next steps:

Meet David Ermak, DO

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Learn about stroke care at Geisinger