Stroke is the word we use to describe a disruption in blood flow to the brain. Stroke is a medical emergency and can cause severe, lifelong disability. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 800,000 Americans have a stroke each year, and one person dies of a stroke every four seconds. Stroke can be one of the most debilitating medical conditions a person experiences. And that makes it very important that everyone learn to identify stroke and try to prevent it. Here’s how to identify the signs of stroke — and how to help prevent having one.
WHAT IS STROKE?
Many people think of stroke as a disease of the brain, but stroke actually happens due to problems with the body’s circulatory system. That means stroke is a type of heart disease.
Whenever brain cells are deprived of oxygen and die, we call this ‘stroke.’ Strokes can be small or massive. They may be caused by a blood clot or by bleeding (‘hemorrhage’). Strokes cause neurological (brain) damage. A stroke can cause you to lose almost all strength on one side of your body, which makes it difficult or impossible to walk or to grasp objects with your hand. Many people who experience stroke require a significant period of rehabilitation to regain physical function.
Stroke also can cause cognitive problems (difficulty understanding words, for example, or being unable to speak) and behavioral changes (for instance, when a normally sweet-tempered person turns into someone who is always angry). Because stroke affects so many brain and body functions, it is considered one of the most debilitating medical conditions.
WHAT CAUSES STROKE?
Like all tissue in the body, brain tissue requires oxygen to function. In fact, the brain uses about 20% of all the oxygen we take in through our lungs. If brain cells do not receive enough oxygen, they die. We call this ‘stroke.’ (You may also hear it called ‘CVA’ for ‘cerebrovascular accident’ or ‘a brain attack.’)
THERE ARE TWO MAIN TYPES OF STROKE:
- Ischemic. This word means ‘lack of oxygen.’ The most common cause of ischemic stroke is a small blood clot blocking an artery within the brain, though any condition that impairs blood flow to the brain can cause an ischemic stroke. For example, if a carotid artery in the neck becomes totally blocked by plaque, an ischemic stroke can ensue.
- Hemorrhagic. If a blood vessel in the brain bursts, blood can flood into the brain and put pressure on delicate tissues, causing the cells to die. This type of stroke is less common than ischemic stroke. Hemorrhagic stroke can be caused by taking blood-thinning medications, such as aspirin and warfarin. High blood pressure and brain aneurysms also can cause hemorrhagic stroke.
RISK FACTORS FOR STROKE
You can’t control all risk factors for stroke, such as age, sex, race and family history. Here’s a list of factors you can influence to reduce your risk of stroke:
- High blood pressure (hypertension). If you have hypertension, you should do everything you can to get it under control. This includes taking medications as prescribed, eating a low-salt diet, exercising and more. Your healthcare provider can give you instructions on how to control hypertension.
- Heart disease. In particular, heart arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation (‘A-fib’) can increase your risk of getting a blood clot that travels to the brain. Heart arrhythmias often can be managed with medication. Other types of heart disease, such as cholesterol (‘plaque’) build-up can be managed through medication and/or dietary changes. If you have active heart disease, work with your healthcare provider to minimize your risk of stroke.
- Diabetes. High blood sugar levels in the blood can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of a hemorrhagic stroke. You can avoid developing type 2 diabetes by eating well, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight. When you minimize your risk of diabetes, you also minimize your risk of stroke.
- Smoking. Did you know smoking makes your blood thicker? Thicker blood means a greater chance of developing a blood clot. Smoking also reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, which means less vital oxygen traveling to your brain.
SYMPTOMS OF STROKE
It’s crucial everyone know the common signs of stroke. Effective treatment of stroke depends on getting help quickly. For ischemic strokes, clot-dissolving medication must be given within three hours of the onset of symptoms. If you notice these signs or symptoms of stroke in yourself or someone else, you should call for emergency responders immediately:
- Sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body
- Drooping face on one side
- Sudden confusion
- Inability to speak coherently
- Inability to understand what someone else is saying
- Sudden slurred speech
- Tongue drifts to one side when the person sticks it out
- Sudden trouble with vision in one eye
- Sudden lack of balance or coordination; inability to walk
- Sudden, severe headache
FOR STROKE, USE THE F-A-S-T ASSESSMENT
Remember this acronym to help you determine if you or someone else is having a stroke:
F for FACE: Ask the person to smile as widely as possible. Does the smile droop on one side?
A for ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms to the sides at shoulder level and hold them there. Does one arm droop or want to float downward?
S for SPEECH: Ask the person to say a simple phrase on their own. If they don’t respond immediately and clearly, suggest a phrase like “the sky is blue.” Are they able to respond? Is their speech understandable, or is it garbled?
T for TIME: If the person ‘fails’ even one of the above tests, call 9-1-1 immediately. Do not attempt to drive the person to the hospital yourself. Emergency responders can provide care as soon as they arrive.
There is no one thing you can do to prevent stroke. You should focus on reducing your risk factors for stroke.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet
- Exercise three times a week
- Know your cholesterol numbers and obtain treatment for high cholesterol
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Quit smoking
- If you have an underlying condition (like hypertension) that can increase your stroke risk, treat the underlying condition
WITH STROKE, YOU MUST MOVE F-A-S-T
Stroke strikes without warning and can affect young people as well as older adults. If you suspect someone is having a stroke, put them through the FAST test and call for emergency responders. You could save a life with your quick thinking.