Hypoglycemia, which is a complication of diabetes, is the medical term for dangerously low blood glucose. A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted by a blocked or burst vessel in the brain. Strokes kill brain cells and cause permanent brain damage. While people with diabetes are at increased risk of having an actual stroke, the symptoms of hypoglycemia can also mimic those of a stroke. The term “hypoglycemic stroke” refers to the strokelike symptoms and brain damage resulting from severe hypoglycemia.
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Blood glucose levels that fall below 70 mg/dL indicate hypoglycemia. The condition is caused by certain medications prescribed to treat diabetes, failure to eat enough food or take medications as prescribed, and exercising vigorously without eating enough food. Hypoglycemia is also caused by liver disease, a pancreatic tumor that releases too much insulin and drinking alcohol. Some people without diabetes have idiopathic hypoglycemia, which does not have a known cause.
Stroke, which is also called a brain attack, prevents blood and oxygen from getting to the brain, which suffers permanent damage after a few seconds. An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks a blood vessel that supplies blood to the brain. Clogged arteries also cause ischemic strokes. A hemorrhagic stroke results from a weak blood vessel in the brain that ruptures and leaks blood into the brain, which damages brain cells.
Symptoms common to hypoglycemia and stroke include headache, blurry vision, memory loss, fatigue, weakness, tingling and numbness, unclear thinking, mood changes, muscle pain, fainting and unconsciousness. Insulin shock caused by hypoglycemia results in coma. Victims of a severe stroke may fall into a coma. Permanent damage to the nervous system, including the brain, can result from both conditions.
Strokelike Hypoglycemia Effects
When glucose levels fall below 18 mg/dL, a failure of brain energy can occur, which is confirmed with an electroencephalogram, or EEG, test to measure electrical activity in the brain. The death of brain neurons occurs, along with other permanent brain damage, when the brain’s electrical activity stops.
While hypoglycemic brain damage resembles that caused by ischemic stroke, there are differences, such as the lack of damage to the cerebellum and brainstem. According to research performed by Ronald N. Auer in 1986 and republished in the December 2004 issue of "Forensic Science International," hypoglycemia, like a stroke, is considered an attack or “insult” to the brain that kills brain cells.