Do You Know the Signs of a Stroke? Find Out the Symptoms and Act Fast
“They strike quickly, without warning and often out of the blue. That's why they're called strokes," says Dr. Daniel Miller, senior staff neurologist at Henry Ford Hospital. And their effects are immediate and life-threatening: strokes are the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the leading cause of preventable disability, according to the American Stroke Association.
Strokes are interruptions of the blood supply to the brain – often caused by a clot, cholesterol plaque or hardening of arteries blocking or rupturing a blood vessel. Strokes are more common as we age because of factors such as:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Heart problems such as arrhythmia
- Lifestyle factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise
Nearly 2 million brain cells die every minute a stroke goes untreated, so the quicker you get help, the better your prospects of recovery and survival, Dr. Miller says. And, he emphasizes, don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911. Professional responders can keep you stable and will alert the hospital that you’re on the way. “Time is very short,” he says. “If you wait too long, you lose the chance of treatment.”
Know the symptoms
The key to differentiating a stroke from other problems is its suddenness, Dr. Miller says. The FAST Guidelines from the American Heart Association are a simple way to remember the symptoms of a stroke:
- Face drooping. Can you smile evenly, or does one side of your face droop or feel numb?
- Arm weakness. Can you raise both arms to the same height, or does one arm drift downward or feel weak or numb?
- Speech difficulty. Is your speech slurred, or are you unable to speak or hard to understand? Can you repeat a simple sentence, such as “The sky is blue”?
- Time to call 911. If you show any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call for help immediately.
Transient ischemic attack, or TIA, is a potential stroke in progress – a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain. It has the same symptoms as a stroke, but resolves within minutes or hours. Nevertheless, it may be an early warning that precedes a stroke by months or even days.
Patients may believe they’re just tired or dehydrated and try to sleep it off or wait it out. Dr. Miller’s advice: When in doubt, check it out. And even dehydration can be a risk factor for stroke.
“We have worked hard to streamline our processes so patients that come to our ERs and hospitals with stroke symptoms get the quickest and best treatments available,” Dr. Miller says.
The first line of treatment usually is a clot-busting drug that must be given in the early stages of a stroke. Newer lifesaving techniques include surgery through the groin to open the blocked vessel.
The best approach is to prevent a stroke or be better prepared for one. Making sure your blood pressure is controlled and eating a healthy diet can help.
“The healthier you are going into a stroke, the better your chances of a good outcome,” says Dr. Miller. “See your doctor regularly and take an active role in controlling your risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, excess weight and inadequate physical activity.”
Pay attention to:
- Blood pressure: Eight in 10 patients who suffer strokes have histories of high blood pressure. Dr. Miller recommends getting a blood pressure monitor to keep regular tabs on your numbers. A reading of 120/80 is ideal; anything over 140/90 puts you at risk. Call your doctor if this happens.
- Maintaining muscle tone: It can help reduce your risk of stroke and help you fight its effects. Try gentle weightlifting or yoga, which can also help ease arthritis symptoms.
- Diet: Focus on low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-salt and high-fiber foods.
Check out this infographic for more facts about strokes.