Stroke is a serious health condition typically associated with older people. It is true that the risk of having a stroke increases with age, but it is also possible for children and teenagers to experience this life changing disease. In 2010, more than 150 people under the age of 35 years died as a result of suffering a stroke. Here we take a look at the prevalence of stroke in children and young people, why it happens, and the impact it causes.

Stroke Affects Hundreds Of Children Each Year

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While the condition is rare in younger people, each year around 350 children in the UK will suffer a stroke, around five out of every 100,000 children. Often there is a delay in diagnosis as strokes are considered an unlikely cause of symptoms in a young person. However, stroke-type symptoms should never be ignored, no matter how old the patient, as this disease can strike any person at any age. In addition to difficulties in balance, speech, and movement typically presented in stroke patients, stroke in children may also present as a sudden headache or seizure.

Causes Of Stroke In Children

When a child suffers a stroke it is often as a result of some previously undiagnosed underlying health condition. There may be some degree of cardiac disease, or malformation of blood vessels within the brain. When this is the case, the patient will not only need treatment and rehabilitation to recover from the stroke, but must also be treated for the contributing illness.

Sometimes a stroke is triggered by a temporary, but severe infection.

However, in 17% of childhood stroke cases, no cause can be identified. The proportion of cases with no identifiable cause rises to nearly a third in young adults.

Haemorrhagic Strokes

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Strokes can be either ischaemic or haemorrhagic in nature. During an ischaemic stroke the blood flow to the brain is restricted by a blockage in a blood vessel. In a haemorrhagic stroke, the blood vessels rupture causing blood to leak out. Across all stroke patients, the incidence of haemorrhagic stroke is around 15%. However for children and young people, this rate is much higher, at 50%.

Risk Factors

Underlying heart conditions can increase the risk of stroke in young people. However, it is usually the case that once a health condition is diagnosed, the risk of it triggering a stroke is managed as part of the treatment or care plan. Stroke is more common when an underlying condition is present, but until the patient suffers a stroke, there are no symptoms, and so the condition remains undetected.

Until recently, the risk factors contributing to strokes in teenagers were not the same as those in adults. In adult stroke victims, lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol, poor diet and obesity are often a contributing factor. However, increasingly young people are exposing themselves to these factors, so the advice to eat a healthy diet, avoid alcohol and smoking, and exercise moderately applies equally to children as it does to adults. As childhood obesity levels rise, so too does the risk of stroke in young people.

Effect Of Stroke On Teenagers

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The most common impact of stroke is a weakness, or even paralysis down one side of the body. There may also be difficulty with speech and language, swallowing, and vision. Changes to the brain can cause mood, memory and judgement problems, while the physical impact of stroke can also have a negative psychological impact on the patient.

Children and teenagers may also suffer from seizures as a result of the stroke, which can remain a problem for the rest of their life.

Rehabilitation and Recovery

Typically children and teenagers make better recoveries from stroke than older patients. Until the age of 20 the brain is continuing to develop, and is more able to adapt to the damage caused.

Like all stroke patients, young people benefit from having adaptations made at home, such as the installation of a stair lift and the use of other mobility aids, to help them regain the independence they enjoyed before the stroke.

Once the patient's physical condition has stabilised, a care plan detailing their needs and goals will be drawn up. Therapies will be planned by medical practitioners, such as physiotherapy to help regain strength and functioning of the body, occupational therapy to help improve the ability to complete everyday tasks, and speech therapy to improve communication skills, and the ability to chew and swallow food. Parents play an integral part of the care team, by providing the support and therapy needed in the home.

Support For Teenage Stroke Victims

Support groups provide a link to other stroke survivors, and can provide information on the legal and financial support, therapies, and physical aids available.

However, support groups for stroke victims tend to cater for older patients who make up the majority of people living with disability after suffering a stroke.

Different Strokes is a UK charity providing support and information to young stroke victims. The charity is run by stroke survivors, and recognises the particular challenges younger stroke victims face including employment and education issues, and the need to make significant lifestyle changes at a time of life already characterised by immense physical and emotional development.

The Stroke Association supports stroke survivors of all ages, and their website includes information and statistics on paediatric stroke, and case studies from young stroke survivors.

Guest post from Harold H Rigby, health and well-being writer.