Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2004;69(7):1679-1680

What is a stroke? What is a TIA?

A stroke happens when too little blood flows to the brain. With too little blood flow, the brain does not get enough oxygen and important nutrients.

Sometimes people have stroke symptoms that go away quickly. This condition is called a transient ischemic attack, or TIA. A TIA is a serious warning that a stroke may happen in the near future.

Who is more likely to have a stroke?

Anyone, including infants and children, can have a stroke. However, the risk of stroke is higher in elderly people.

People who have high blood pressure, diabetes, and certain kinds of heart disease are at increased risk for stroke. The risk of stroke also is higher in people who smoke.

How do I know that I am having a stroke?

Strokes come on suddenly and often involve one side of the body. Here are some common symptoms of stroke and TIA:

  • A very bad headache, especially if you also have a stiff neck or if you pass out

  • Loss of vision, or double vision

  • Trouble speaking, such as slurring words or being unable to think of the right words, or being unable to understand what others are saying to you

  • A droopy or “twisted” face

  • Weakness in your face, an arm, or a leg

  • Numbness or tingling in your face (including your lips and tongue), an arm, or a leg

  • Clumsiness in walking or using your arms or legs

What should I do if I think I am having a stroke or a TIA?

Call “9-1-1” right away, even if your symptoms seem to go away or get better. Do not call a family member or even your doctor until you have called “9-1-1.” You need to be taken to a hospital emergency department right away. It is not safe to drive yourself to the hospital. There are some treatments that can reverse the effects of a stroke, but only if they are given very quickly.

At the hospital, a picture of your brain will be taken, your blood pressure will be checked often, and lab tests will be done. You may be given some medicines at the hospital.

What will I need to do next?

Your family doctor will work with you to lower your risk of having strokes. You might need to change your diet, increase your physical activity, and take medicine to lower your blood pressure.

If you have diabetes, you might need to improve your diet. If you smoke, you will need to stop smoking.

What can I do to keep from having a TIA or stroke?

If you smoke, stop. In addition, eat a “heart-healthy” diet—one that is low in saturated fats and cholesterol.

Take all the medicines that your doctor prescribes for you, and take them just as they are prescribed. Keep all appointments with your doctor.

Where can I get more information about strokes and TIAs?

You can get more information from these groups:

  • American Stroke Association

  • 7272 Greenville Avenue

  • Dallas, TX 75231-4596

  • Phone number: 1-888-478-7653

  • Web site: http://www.strokeassociation.org

  • National Stroke Association

  • 9707 East Easter Lane

  • Englewood, CO 80112-3747

  • Phone number: 1-800-787-6537

  • Web site: http://www.stroke.org

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