But stroke can happen at any age including in childhood. Currently, about six in 100,000 children have a stroke each year. In BC, that’s about 50 children every year.
A stroke is caused by the interruption of normal flow of blood to the brain. When a part of the brain does not receive its regular flow of blood that carries nutrients and oxygen, brain cells die, causing a loss of brain function.
There are three causes of stroke:
- Blockage of a blood vessel – known as a clot – which is the most frequent case
- Blood disorders or inflammation of the blood vessels sometimes associated with virus or disease
- Trauma to the head and neck that causes layers of a blood vessel to separate allowing blood to travel where it doesn’t normally belong
Sudden onset of the following may indicate a stroke:
- Face Drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the child to smile. Is the child’s smile uneven?
- Arm Weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the child to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
- Speech Difficulty – Is speech slurred? Is the child unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the child to repeat a simple sentence, like "The sky is blue." Is the sentence repeated correctly?
- Time to call 9-1-1 – If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1. Check the time so you'll know when the first symptoms appeared.
The quicker a child is seen at an emergency, the quicker they can be assessed and treated, increasing the likelihood of avoiding long-term brain injury. If a child does have a stroke, they often recover and thrive. Following a stroke, doctors work to quickly restore blood flow to the brain and then provide optimal care, usually in the ICU, to avoid or minimize damage.
Rehabilitation can also help a child recover and often includes speech, psychical and occupational therapies. Sometimes, additional neurology surgery is performed. Other rehabilitation methods harness the brain’s natural neuroplasticity to retrain it and restore its ability to operate normally.
Doctors at BC Children’s Hospital work with other experts from children’s hospitals in Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto and Boston to better understand childhood stroke risks, causes, assessments and treatments. In fact, thanks to work initiated in Canada, there are now more than 199 centres in 45 countries examining 4,500 childhood stroke cases to help improve medical care and treatment for children who suffer strokes.