CVA (Cerebrovascular Accident)

Cerebrovascular accident is a very serious condition in which the brain is not receiving enough oxygen to function properly. A cerebrovascular accident is also called CVA, brain attack, cerebral infarction or stroke.

A cerebrovascular accident often results in permanent serious complications and disability and is a common cause of death. Cerebrovascular accidents are the second leading cause of death worldwide and the third leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association.



The brain requires a steady supply of oxygen in order to pump blood effectively to all of the body. Oxygen is supplied to the brain in the blood that flows through arteries. In a cerebrovascular accident, one or more of these arteries becomes blocked or ruptures or begins to leak. This deprives a portion of the brain of vital oxygen-rich blood. This damage can become permanent within minutes and result in the death of the affected brain tissue. This is called cerebral necrosis.

There are two types of cerebrovascular accidents. An ischemic cerebrovascular accident occurs when a brain artery has been blocked. A hemorrhagic cerebrovascular accident occurs when an artery ruptures or leaks.

There are three primary causes of cerebrovascular accidents: cerebral thrombosis, cerebral embolism and cerebral hemorrhage.

A cerebrovascular accident caused by a cerebral thrombosis is the result of a build-up of plaque and inflammation in the arteries, called atherosclerosis. This process narrows the brain arteries and lowers the amount of oxygen-rich blood that reaches the brain tissue. Arteries narrowed by atherosclerosis are more likely to develop a blood clot that completely blocks blood flow to an area of the brain. Risk factors for atherosclerosis include having high cholesteroldiabetes, and hypertension.

Cerebrovascular accident caused by a cerebral embolism occurs when a clot forms in another part of the body and travels in the bloodstream to a brain artery, blocking the flow of blood to the brain. A cerebrovascular accident caused by cerebral hemorrhage occurs when a brain artery breaks or leaks blood into the surrounding brain tissue.

The extent of the damage done to the brain and resulting symptoms of a cerebrovascular accident vary depending on the type, the area or areas of the brain affected, and how much time passes before the cerebrovascular accident is treated. Complications of cerebrovascular accident include permanent neurological damage, disability and death. For more information on key hallmark symptoms and other complications, refer to symptoms of cerebrovascular accident.

Risk factors for a cerebrovascular accident include a having hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity. Other risk factors include being of African-American ancestry, being male, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, smoking and having a family history of heart disease or cerebrovascular accident. Having a brain aneurysm puts a person at an extreme risk for a hemorrhagic cerebrovascular accident.

Making a diagnosis of cerebrovascular accident includes completing a complete medical evaluation and history and physical examination, including a neurological examination. This is often done in an emergency room.

Diagnostic testing includes imaging tests, such as a CT or MRI and cerebral angiogram of the brain. A cerebral angiogram is an imaging test that reveals obstructed or narrowed arteries in the brain and can show blood flow or obstruction through the arteries of the brain.

A battery of other tests are also performed to evaluate for other conditions that commonly occur with a cerebrovascular accident, such as heart disease and cardiac arrhythmia.

It is possible that a diagnosis of cerebrovascular accident can be missed or delayed because the symptoms may be mild and be similar to symptoms of other conditions and diseases. If caught early, some cerebrovascular accidents can be successfully treated before the development of permanent brain damage and complications.

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