The most familiar and most common type of stroke occurs in the brain. But there is another type of stroke known as a spinal stroke that can also cause significant damage in the nervous system.
A stroke is an attack that causes damage to the brain. Nerve cells in the brain get oxygen and food through arteries that carry blood to the brain. If those arteries are blocked, blood flow is limited or stops and that portion of the brain can be damaged in just a few minutes as brain cells die.
A spinal stroke, which is also called spinal cord infarction, is stroke that causes damage to the spinal cord instead of to the brain. Just like the brain, the nerve cells in the spine depend on blood vessels to deliver the oxygen and nutrients they need to live and function.
A stroke can occur due to something that plugs an artery in the brain. This may be the result of a blood clot that forms in the artery in the brain, or due to a blood clot or other debris such as plaque that forms somewhere else in the body and travels to the brain.
Stroke can also occur if a blood vessel in the brain becomes weak and bursts, leaking blood into the brain instead of transporting it where it needs to go. This may be the result of trauma, such as an injury to the head, or due to other medical conditions such as high blood pressure, weak spots in the walls of arteries or the use of blood thinning medications.
Like a stroke, a spinal stroke is the result of a blocked blood vessel. There are two primary blood vessels on the front (anterior) and back (posterior) of the spine. These large vessels feed into a complex system of arteries to provide blood to cells in the spine.
Most spinal strokes are caused by a blockage in the anterior spinal artery. Like in the brain, the blockage may be a blood clot or may be debris such as fat from arteriosclerosis. Spinal strokes may also be caused by a blood vessel that leaks or bursts. High blood pressure is the most common cause of this type of spinal stroke.
A stroke in the brain typically affects the side of the body that is controlled by that portion of the brain.
Common signs of a brain stroke are:
• Trouble with language – You may be confused or have difficulty speaking or understanding what is said.
• Weakness on one side – There may be sudden paralysis, weakness or numbness, typically on just one side of the body. It may affect an arm or leg or one side of the face.
• Vision problems – Vision may be blurred, blackened, or missing in one or both eyes, or you may have double vision.
• Headache – This may be sudden and very severe, including dizziness, vomiting or change of consciousness.
• Trouble walking – This may include dizziness, poor balance, loss of coordination or stumbling.
Common signs of a spinal stroke vary depending on what part of the spine is affected. The symptoms of spinal stroke usually appear suddenly and may include:
• Weakness – You may suddenly experience weakness or numbness, usually in the legs or lower body. Weakness may quickly progress to paralysis.
• Unusual sensations – These may include numbness, burning, tingling or the inability to sense different temperatures in the lower half of the body.
• Bowel or bladder problems – You may lose control of your bladder or bowels, or may feel an urgent need to use the toilet.
• Dividing line – There may be an obvious point where the feeling of symptoms begins and ends, like a line drawn around the torso or waist.
Nearly 800,000 new strokes take place in the United States every year and stroke is the leading cause of adult disability in the United States. In comparison, spinal strokes are very rare.
Either type of stroke is a medical emergency. If you believe you or someone close to you might be having a stroke, get emergency treatment right away. Quick treatment may help prevent permanent damage from a stroke.
Mayo Clinic. Stroke. Web. May 19, 2015.
Brain & Spine Foundation, UK. Spinal strokes. Web. May 19, 2015.
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. NINDS Spinal Cord Infarction Information Page. Web. May 19, 2015.
Reviewed May 25, 2015
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith