Understanding Strokes

Understanding Strokes

A stroke is a medical emergency which occurs when there is an interruption of blood flow to an area of the brain. Every second counts, because time lost is brain lost. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die. The lack of oxygen to that area in the brain causes the symptoms. Know these stroke warning signs and teach them to others:

Stroke Warning Signs

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes; blurry or blackened vision.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause.

A stroke may be caused by a blocked artery (ischemic stroke) or the leaking or bursting of a blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke) due to hypertension, anticoagulants or an aneurysm. Some people may experience only a temporary disruption of blood flow to their brain (transient ischemic attack, or TIA—a mini-stroke).

If you think someone may be having a stroke, there are four quick checks you can make:

  • Ask the person to give you a smile–is it lop-sided?
  • Ask the person to say a whole sentence, i.e., “It’s a nice day today.” Is her speech slurred or strange? Is she confused?
  • Ask the person to stick out his tongue—is it at the corner of his mouth?
  • Ask the person to raise her hands over her head—does one arm drift downward?

If you suspect a stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately! Prompt treatment at the hospital is crucial. Early action can minimize brain damage and potential complications. Note the time when any symptoms first appear. If given within three hours of the first symptom, there is an FDA-approved clot-buster medication (TPA) that may reduce long-term disability for the most common type of stroke.

Complications from a stroke

A stroke can sometimes cause temporary or permanent disabilities, depending on how long the brain lacks blood flow and which part of the brain was affected. Complications may include:

  • Paralysis or loss of muscle movement. This usually occurs on one side of the body. Physical therapy may help the person return to activities such as walking, eating and dressing.
  • Difficulty talking or swallowing. A stroke may cause one to have less control over the muscles in his mouth and throat, making speech or swallowing difficult. There may also be difficulty expressing oneself or understanding speech, reading or writing. Therapy with a speech and language pathologist may help.
  • Memory loss or thinking difficulties. Besides memory loss, one may have difficulty thinking, making judgments, reasoning and understanding concepts.
  • Emotional problems. This can include control of emotions or development of depression.
  • Pain. This includes numbness or other strange sensations in parts of the body affected by the
    stroke. People may also be sensitive to temperature changes. This may improve over time.
  • Changes in behaviors and self-care ability. One may become more withdrawn, less social or more impulsive. They may need help with grooming and daily chores.

What are the Risk Factors Leading to Strokes?

Lifestyle Risk Factors

  • Being overweight or obese
  • Physical inactivity
  • Heavy or binge drinking
  • Use of illicit drugs

Medical Risk Factors

  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoke or secondhand smoke exposure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Cardiovascular disease (heart failure, heart defects, heart infection, rhythm disturbances (atrial fibrillation)

Other Risk Factors

  • Person or family history of stroke, heart attack or TIA
  • Age 55 or older
  • Race—African Americans have a higher risk
  • Gender—Men have a higher risk. Women who take oral contraceptives or hormone therapies that include estrogen, as well as from pregnancy and childbirth.

Sources: American Stroke Association, MayoClinic.com, National Stroke Association 


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