A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain is blocked (ischemic stroke), leaks or bursts (hemorrhagic stroke), damaging or killing nerve cells in the brain. As a result, the part of the body controlled by the damaged area of the brain cannot work properly.

A transient ischemic attack (TIA), which is sometimes referred to as a "warning stroke," is similar to an ischemic stroke except that the symptoms last 2 to 30 minutes.  

Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States and the leading cause of adult disability.

Most stroke symptoms occur suddenly, and immediate medical care is vital. If you notice one or more of these signs in another person or in yourself, do not wait to seek help. Call 9-1-1 immediately.


The signs of a stroke are:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion
  • Sudden trouble speaking
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking
  • Sudden dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

The effects of an acute ischemic stroke may cause additional symptoms in women including:

  • Face, arm or leg pain
  • Hiccups or nausea
  • Chest pain or palpitations
  • Shortness of breath

For hemorrhagic stroke, symptoms may also include:

  • Sudden, intense headache
  • Facial pain
  • Brief loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent fluctuations in heartbeat and breathing
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and vomiting


Causes and Risk Factors

The causes of stroke vary, based on type:

  • Acute ischemic strokes occur when blood supply is cut off to part of the brain. This type of stroke accounts for 87 percent of all strokes.
  • Hemorrhagic strokes happen when blood from an artery suddenly begins bleeding into the brain. Bleeding can happen inside the brain (intracranial) or between the brain and the membrane that covers it (subarachnoid).

While strokes can happen to anyone at any age, including children, risk does increase as a person gets older. While men are more likely to have a stroke, women are more likely to die from one. A family history of stroke, or a personal history of stroke or heart attack, also increase the risk of stroke. Research also has shown African-Americans are at higher risk of stroke than Caucasians.

Uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease and high blood cholesterol are all risk factors for stroke. The top preventable risk factor for stroke, however, is smoking. Both the nicotine and carbon monoxide found in tobacco smoke lower the amount of oxygen in your blood. They also damage the walls of blood vessels, making clots more likely to form. Combining the use of some kinds of birth control pills with smoking greatly increases a woman's stroke risk.

For risk factors associated with the specific types of stroke, visit Ischemic Stroke and Hemorrhagic Stroke.


Diagnosis of a stroke is based on the patient's medical history and a physical exam. A variety of diagnostic tests are available through the Stroke Program at Cedars-Sinai, a Joint Commission-certified Comprehensive Stroke Center equipped with the facilities and expertise to treat the most complex cases.

If stroke is suspected, the physician will order imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a computed tomography (CT) scan to determine whether the stroke was caused by a clot or from bleeding inside the brain. Additional tests are done based on the scan results.

If narrowing of one of the large arteries in the neck, known as the carotid arteries, is suspected, the following tests may be done:

If the stroke was caused by a clot that formed in the heart, the physician may order a chest X-ray, electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), echocardiograph or other heart imaging test.


People who have symptoms of a stroke need emergency medical care. Immediate medical attention may prevent life-threatening complications, and widespread brain damage.

If emergency treatment is sought for ischemic stroke within the first three hours after symptoms begin, the patient may receive a medication to dissolve the clot, such as tissue plasminogen (tPA), which can increase the chances of a full recovery.

The goals of treatment are to prevent life-threatening complications that may occur soon after stroke symptoms develop, prevent future strokes, reduce disability, prevent long-term complications and help the patient get back as much normal functioning as possible through rehabilitation.

Neurosurgical treatment options may be used to reopen blood vessels and restore blood flow to the brain.

The ultimate effects of a stroke depend on the specific brain cells that are damaged, how much of the brain is affected and how fast blood flow is restored to the affected area.

If a stroke is caused by a large blood clot or bleeding, symptoms occur within seconds. When a stroke involves an artery that is already narrowed or blocked, symptoms usually develop gradually within minutes to hours. If you notice one or more of these signs in another person or in yourself, do not wait to seek help. Call 9-1-1 immediately.