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The Reality of Strokes: They Can Happen at Any Age, Even Babies in the Womb

The reason for Cook Children’s Stroke and Thrombosis Program

The death of actor Luke Perry shocked a lot of us. After all, he was only 52 years old.

But the sad reality is that strokes can happen to anyone at any age, including children and even babies in the womb.

Stroke is the sixth leading cause of death in children, affecting approximately 6 to 10 in 100,000 children.

Strokes are so frequent among young people, Cook Children’s Medical Center houses a Comprehensive Stroke and Thrombosis Program, one of 16 such centers in the U.S. The program is led by co-medical directors: Marcela Torres, M.D., a hematologist/oncologist, and Fernando Acosta Jr., a neurologist.

““A problem with pediatric strokes, in contrast to those in adults, is that in pediatric strokes, the causes and circumstances are incredibly diverse, and they are also widely different within the pediatric age groups,” Dr. Torres said. “The potential causes of stroke vary radically from a neonatal stroke to the stroke that affects a teenager/young adult.”

Another challenge of pediatric stroke is risks, symptoms, prevention and treatment, all differ considerably between kids and adults. As a result, pediatric stroke is a niche study of medicine that isn’t as widely recognized, practiced or studied as other specialties.

While it can be extremely difficult to recognize symptoms of strokes in an adult, it’s even more so in children.

“It’s not uncommon for some types of strokes or after affects to go unnoticed,” Dr. Torres said. “Children’s strokes are often misdiagnosed as a migraine or viral illness. That’s dangerous because time is of the essence in treating a stroke.”

Strokes in adults are often brought on by lifestyle choices such as high cholesterol, a history of smoking, too much alcohol and obesity. For children, strokes are usually caused by heart birth defects, infections such as meningitis and encephalitis, brain blood vessel abnormalities trauma and blood disorders such as sickle cell disease, or unknown causes.

Stroke-related disabilities is another area where childhood and adult stroke survivors can differ. While strokes in children can be devastating, the good news is a child may be able to overcome the debilitation of stroke better because of the greater plasticity, or flexibility, of the child’s nervous system and brain. A child’s brain is still developing, therefore it may have a greater ability to repair itself. However, in contrast to an adult, a child has many more years to live with the disability associated with the stroke. With the help of physical and speech therapy, most childhood stroke survivors recover the use of their arms, legs and speech. Ongoing assessment of a child’s learning ability with recommendations for school are particularly important to a child’s success.

A comprehensive stroke program similar to that at Cook Children’s Medical Center, is focused on all aspects of stroke care including acute treatment and post stroke recovery. Cook Children's recently implemented an acute stroke alert system that involves nearly every aspect of the infrastructure of Cook Children’s to make this happen. This means that Cook Children’s is able to provide expert care in acute stroke with the goal of limiting the disability of the stroke and improve the quality of life for the rest of that child’s life. 

“Unfortunately pediatric strokes have been ignored for a long time as a true entity,” Dr. Acosta said. “This has changed over the last few years. The awareness is increasing.”

To Learn More:

What Is A Stroke?

A stroke is sudden death of brain cells due to lack of oxygen. It can be caused by blockage of blood flow due to a clot or rupture of an artery that supplies blood in the brain.

When this happens, the cells of the brain in the affected area become damaged. If the flow is interrupted for too long, the cells may die because they don't get the oxygen they need. Then the child is at risk for long-term damage and may even risk losing his or her life.

There are three types of strokes:

  • Arterial ischemic stroke - when the flow of blood going into an area of the brain is interrupted by an occlusion of a blood vessel, usually by a clot.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke - when a blood vessel in the brain leaks or bursts causing flooding of the brain with blood and damaging brain cells.
  • Cerebral Sinus Vein Thrombosis - when a blood clot forms in the brain's venous sinuses (veins drain blood from the brain towards the heart). Rather than preventing blood from flowing into the brain, it blocks blood from flowing out. This may result in increased pressure inside the brain or blood leaking into the brain, resulting in a hemorrhagic or ischemic stroke.

Click here to learn more.

Symptoms of a Stroke

The most effective stroke treatments must be given within the first three hours after stroke symptoms start. By recognizing signs of stroke in children and acting fast, you can help medical professionals lessen a stroke’s damage to the child’s brain.

Use the following tool to help you think BE F.A.S.T.:


Ask the child to smile.

Does one side of the face droop?


Ask the child to raise both arms.

Does one arm drift downward?


Ask the child to repeat a simple sentence.

Are the words slurred? Can the patient repeat the sentence correctly?


If the child shows any of these symptoms, time is important. Call 911 or get to the hospital fast. Brain cells are dying.

Get to know the Stroke and Thrombosis Program At Cook Children's

People rarely think of children as being at risk for stroke. But the truth is, strokes can happen to people of all ages, even to babies in the womb. For children especially, strokes can be related to bleeding and clotting disorders. Approximately 6 to 10 in 100,000 children are affected by stroke. Because the causes and symptoms are so different from adult stroke, treating stroke in children requires specialized training. At Cook Children's, we have developed the Stroke and Thrombosis Program, comprised of a team of specialists whose primary goal is to help children recover from a stroke and/or thrombotic disease, as well as prevent future strokes. Our program offers specialized treatment starting in the emergency room and ongoing care throughout the child's recovery. If you would like to speak to one of our staff, please call our offices at 682-885-8050.


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