Stroke is the third leading cause of death and one of the leading causes of disability in the U.S., but the National Stroke Association believes that with more education and awareness, those grim statistics could be improved. If a stroke does occur, knowing the signs and getting immediate medical attention are key to both survival and recovery.
What is stroke?
A stroke, or “brain attack,” occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery (ischemic stroke) or a blood vessel breaks (hemorrhagic stroke), interrupting blood flow to an area of the brain. When this happens, brain cells begin to die and brain damage occurs. When those cells die, abilities controlled by that area of the brain are lost.
“A sudden onset of neurological changes means you need to get to the hospital immediately,” said Dr. Frank McDonald, who is board-certified in neurology by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. “Sudden” is a key aspect of evaluating symptoms. Depending on what part of the brain is affected, symptoms may include sudden:
- Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Difficulty speaking or understanding
- Trouble seeing to one side
- Trouble walking, dizziness or loss of balance
- Severe headache with no known cause
Whether the stroke is minor or more significant also plays a role in the severity of the symptoms and outcome. The sooner a person gets to the hospital, usually within the first three hours of symptom onset, the better the chances for stopping the stroke with anti-coagulant drugs. This also increases the odds for recovery, though two-thirds of survivors will have some sort of disability.
Role of a Neurologist
According to Dr. McDonald, the role of the neurologist is to determine the cause of the stroke so that the patient can get the proper medication or procedures in order to prevent future strokes. Because while rehab can help compensate for a stroke’s side effects, it can’t reverse brain damage.
“We want to figure out the underlying causes to prevent future strokes from occurring,” Dr. McDonald said. Especially considering that those who’ve had a stroke are at greater risk for additional strokes.
The good news is that up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented. While strokes occur most often in older people, young people can be affected as well. A person’s chances of having a stroke increase if he or she has risk factors, whether controllable or uncontrollable.
Risk factors include but are not limited to:
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- High cholesterol
- Family history
- Atrial fibrillation
- History of TIAs or “mini strokes
And while people have no control over things like age and family history, they can make lifestyle modifications such as controlling high blood pressure and heart disease through diet and exercise, quitting tobacco or having the proper medications/surgical procedures.
Identifying the Symptoms
Face – Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
Arms – Ask the person to lift one arm. Does one arm drift downward?
Speech – Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred?
Time – If you see any of these signs, contact 911 immediately.