What is a stroke?

An older man and woman talking together on a couch.

A stroke is a medical emergency that occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. When that happens, brain cells can be deprived of oxygen, potentially causing permanent damage.

The impact stroke has on cognition, speech and movement, will depend on which areas of the brain have been affected, and for how long. The sooner treatment is given, the greater chance there is of limiting impairment.

Types of stroke

There are three different types of stroke: Ischaemic, Haemorrhagic and Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA) or ‘mini-stroke’.

Ischaemic stroke

This is the most common kind of stroke. It’s caused by a blockage in the artery supplying blood to the brain.

Haemorrhagic stroke

This type of stroke occurs when a blood vessel leaks or bursts and blood flows into or around the brain, preventing oxygen from reaching surrounding brain cells.


Transient Ischaemic Attack (TIA) or a ‘mini-stroke’ is the same as a stroke, except that the symptoms are short-lived because the interruption of blood flow to the brain was only temporary.

What causes a stroke?

A stroke can occur at any age. Factors such as age, family history and gender also play a role in a person’s risk of a stroke.

Ischaemic strokes are caused when blood clots block the flow of blood, and therefore oxygen, to the brain. While atrial fibrillation — an irregular heart rhythm — can cause blood clots in the heart, clots more typically form in arteries that have narrowed, or become blocked, as a result of fatty deposits.

Haemorrhagic strokes are usually caused by high blood pressure, which can weaken arteries and make them susceptible to damage.

Our arteries can naturally narrow as we age. However, there are specific conditions and health choices that can increase this risk as well as increasing blood pressure:

  • Obesity
  • High cholesterol
  • Stress
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Heavy drinking
  • A high salt and high fat diet
  • Lack of exercise.

Haemorrhagic strokes can also be caused by head injuries, aneurysms or – less commonly — an abnormally formed blood vessel. Interestingly, more than 80% of strokes can be prevented. Learn more about how strokes can be prevented.

What are the warning signs of stroke?

The Stroke Foundation recommends using the F.A.S.T. (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) test.

  • Face – Check their face. Has their mouth drooped?
  • Arms – Can they lift both arms?
  • Speech – Is their speech slurred? Do they understand you?
  • Time – Is critical. If you see any of these signs, call 000 straight away.

A stroke happens when your brain is deprived of the blood and oxygen it needs. Physically, you might experience:

  • Severe headache
  • A sudden feeling of numbness or weakness in your face or limbs, particularly on one side
  • Confusion, trouble communicating or understanding others
  • Difficulty seeing
  • Problems swallowing
  • Loss of balance or coordination and dizziness.

If you think someone may be experiencing a stroke, the key is to act FAST– call 000 for urgent medical treatment.

Learn more about warning signs of stroke and how to help someone having a stroke.

Recovering after stroke

All strokes are different – some people may recover fairly quickly, while others may experience significant disability, and may need long-term support.

After the person has experienced a stroke, usually a brain scan will be carried out and – depending on the type of stroke, the time elapsed since it occurred and individual risk factors – clot-busting drugs administered or clot retrieval may be performed. The person may also receive medication to prevent clots, reduce blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels.

How long a person remains in the hospital is dictated by the type of stroke experienced, its severity, the treatment received, progress in recovery, and the bigger picture of a person’s general health.

While there is no medical treatment that can repair brain damage caused by stroke, rehab can help people re-learn or find new ways of doing things. Rehabilitation leans on the principles of neuroplasticity, which is the nervous system’s inherent ability to reorganise its connections and how it functions. In short, it’s about using new parts of the brain to compensate for the parts impacted by stroke.

While improvement may continue for years, rehabilitation tends to yield the greatest results in the early months following a stroke. As ever, speed is of the essence – engage with specialists as quickly as possible, for maximum possible gains.

NDIS support for stroke

More than 445,087 Australians are living with the effects of stroke, which is a leading cause of disability in the country. A significant stroke can result in permanent disability. In fact, in 2020, a third of stroke events resulted in disability, affecting the person’s ability to independently carry out activities of daily living.

If you (or someone you know) has experienced stroke, you may be eligible for NDIS funding or aged care funding. Learn more about eligibility for NDIS funding following a stroke. Once you’ve been approved for NDIS funding, you can start connecting with independent support workers through Mable to build your support team.


The cause of stroke varies, depending on the type you experience – ischaemic or haemorrhagic – although there are common risk factors, including smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, heavy drinking, high cholesterol and high blood-pressure.

If you have previously experienced a stroke or TIA, it’s particularly important to be vigilant and to actively manage any risk factors, as the chances of having another stroke may have greatly increased.

Every stroke is different but, typically, not painful at the time. However, some people do experience pain during treatment and recovery.

In short, yes. Stress can trigger a range of risk-factors for stroke, including poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and reliance on alcohol. It can also cause the heart to work harder, which increases blood pressure, and drives up sugar levels in the blood, potentially triggering diabetes – all factors which can increase the risk of clots. Similarly, it’s known to increase inflammation in the arteries and throughout the body, narrowing blood vessels and inhibiting blood supply, and therefore oxygen, to the brain.

Unfortunately, there is no clear or predictable timeline. Recovery will depend upon the severity of the stroke, the areas of the brain affected, and the speed of access to treatment and rehabilitation.