Brain Stroke: what are the risks?

Every year, over 12,000 people in Switzerland and more than 200,000 people in Germany suffer a stroke. A quarter of them die as a result. This makes stroke the third most likely cause of death after heart disease and cancer.

Only 40 percent of those affected make a complete recovery or at least recover enough to continue a normal life. A third rely on outside help in their everyday lives or are dependent on nursing care. One in six affected are of working age. The tragic thing is that 30 to 50 percent of strokes could be avoided if people lived healthier lives and took notice of the warning signals.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is the result of a sudden vascular insufficiency or lack of blood circulation to the brain. As a result of this cerebrovascular insufficiency, the nerve cells in the brain receive too little oxygen and nutrients and die. The result in 80 percent of cases is a stroke caused by vascular obliteration (ischemic attack), and by cerebral hemorrhage in the other 20 percent.

Are there early symptoms of a stroke?

Yes, these are known as striation. Doctors call them "transient ischemic attacks", which means a lack of blood circulation in the brain. TIAs can cause the following neurological disorders: weakness, tingling and a feeling of numbness in the arms, legs and face, disturbed coordination, disturbed balance, problems with walking, and language and speech disturbance. Memory loss and visual problems are also possible. If you experience a TIA, it is important to get to a doctor as quickly as possible or call an ambulance. After a TIA, the risk of having a stroke within the following five years is around 40 percent.

Is a stroke an unavoidable stroke of fate?

No. If you live a healthy life, take enough exercise and do not smoke, your risk of having a stroke is low. Smokers are twice or three times more likely to have a stroke. Other risk factors are high blood pressure, too high cholesterol levels, diabetes, obesity, stress, and for female smokers, the contraceptive pill.

What happens in the brain?

The human brain is the most complicated structure known to man. Via billions of nerve cells, it constantly receives signals from outside and from within, processes them, stores them, and passes them on. Nerve cells do not communicate in isolation but in a sort of conference call with thousands of other cells, whereby the participants change all the time in periods of seconds. In this way the brain controls our organs, our movements, our behavior, our thoughts and feelings - all simultaneously and completely automatically, without our assistance, and without us even being aware of it. The brain is our language and learning center with limitless storage capacity for experience, sensation, learning. And it's all interconnected, unlike in a computer, which stores data neatly side by side. The memory grows with ever new links, new information becomes old, and is assigned to the familiar. We notice this when a word suddenly reminds us of something we thought we had forgotten.

Most active human organ

Just like departments in an office, different tasks and functions are performed by different regions of the brain. Scientists have managed to decipher most of them, but we still don't know exactly how all of the brain's complex processes work. As our most active organ, the brain uses an enormous amount of oxygen and energy.

Brain injury explained

Around 20% of our blood is pumped from the heart to the brain, and even a temporary failure in the oxygen supply can lead to brain damage, any longer can be fatal. The brain is very vulnerable, which is why it is so well protected. As the single largest part of the body, it is completely surrounded by hard bone - the skull. Injuries to the skull from blows or punches or other external influences can also damage the brain itself, individual nerve cells or even whole regions of the brain. Hemorrhages, lack of oxygen or other causes can also lead to brain damage. Then the whole complex network literally runs out of control. Everything that used to run smoothly without any help from us, suddenly no longer works, no matter how much willpower we use. When cells no longer fulfil their function or the connections no longer exist, the automatic sequence is also broken.

What happens to someone after a brain injury?

We try to move, but we can't, our muscles no longer "obey" us, the order from the brain doesn't come or doesn't reach its destination. Or we have problems with our vision, as signals from the eye don't all reach the brain, or can no longer be converted into complete images. Hearing problems, disturbances in our sense of taste or even the ability to think can all the result. Also, our memory no longer works if important connections have been destroyed. Even the ability to speak can be impaired or even lost. But everyday functions such as the ability to think and act may not be the only thing affected if the control of psychic processes in the brain is disturbed: the personality can also change.

What can doctors do?

Nowadays, medicine has a wealth of diagnostic and treatment methods with which to identify, treat, alleviate, and even cure brain injuries and the damage that may result. Although regions of the brain that have been destroyed cannot be "resuscitated" and are gone for ever. But the brain is a very adaptable organ, and other regions are capable of taking over these tasks. If one half of the brain dies, the other half is even capable of taking over all of its functions. This is a learning process for the patient, which can be very long and arduous, depending on the severity of the injury.

How essential is immediate treatment?

Whether the injuries are slight or severe, time plays a crucial role. The sooner the injuries are diagnosed, the earlier treatment and rehabilitation can start, the greater the chance of a full recovery. In other words, the longer the effects of the injury last, the more nerve cells are affected or irrevocably destroyed. This applies in particular to hemorrhages and swellings that do not appear immediately, but only after a few days.

Are the symptoms of brain injury always immediate?

No. With swellings, it's the protective skull cover that causes the problem: the brain cannot expand and the pressure inside it steadily increases. Even apparently harmless injuries, which may not show any immediate damage, can become a risk. For this reason, you should always see a doctor or go to the hospital in the event of an accident involving heavy punches or blows to the skull. Depending on the severity of the injury, acute emergency treatment is followed by early rehabilitation while the patient is still in hospital, then by a stay in the rehab clinic, and finally by outpatient rehabilitation. If diagnosed and treated quickly, the damage mentioned above need not be permanent and can be at least partially if not completely cured.

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