By David Sommer, MD, MPH
Division of Neurology
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, a great time to learn more about this medical emergency and how to lower your risk. Stroke is the number five cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States.
A stroke occurs when a blood vessel that carries blood to the brain is either blocked by a clot or ruptures suddenly. When this happens, the part of the brain the stroke occurred in cannot receive the blood (and oxygen) it requires and brain tissue is lost. Symptoms of a stroke become apparent immediately. Since a stroke happens in the brain, it can affect everything, from a person’s speech to body movement, vision, or balance. Symptoms usually happen on one side of the body.
A TIA (transient ischemic attack) or “mini stroke” is caused by a temporary blood clot in the brain. It can be a warning sign of a more serious stroke and also requires immediate medical attention.
Learn the key warning signs of stroke:
- Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Sudden trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Remember “BE FAST” if you suspect someone is having a stroke:
B – Balance: Is the person suddenly having trouble with balance or coordination?
E – Eyes: Is the person experiencing suddenly blurred vision, double vision, or loss of vision in one or both eyes?
F – Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A – Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S – Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?
T – Time: If you notice any of the above signs, call 911 right away for emergency help
Stroke patients need care quickly. The stroke treatments that work the best are available only if the stroke is recognized and diagnosed within a few hours of the first symptoms, but the sooner a patient gets treatment, the more effective the treatment is. Minutes matter! That’s why it’s vital that stroke patients arrive at the hospital without delay. Take action immediately if you suspect someone has had a stroke. Your readiness to spot the warning signs could make the difference between a full recovery and having a long-term disability.
Be sure to note the exact time when any stroke symptoms first appear. This helps healthcare providers determine the best treatment for the patient. Do not drive the patient to the hospital or let someone drive you if you are having a stroke. Always call an ambulance so that medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment on the way to the emergency room.
Can strokes be prevented?
Many strokes are likely preventable. We know that controlling high blood pressure lowers one’s risk of stroke. We know that taking medication to prevent blood clots and lower cholesterol (if recommended by a doctor based on an individual person’s medical conditions and history) lowers the risk of stroke. Controlling diabetes and being aware of your heart history including diagnosing any heart rhythm problems can also help you work with your doctor to keep your stroke risk as low as possible.
Unfortunately, once you have had a stroke, you are at higher risk for having another one. If you have had a TIA, the chance of stroke within 90 days may be as high as 17 percent – with the greatest risk during the first few days. That’s why it’s important to get medical attention right away if you have TIA or stroke symptoms to make sure you’re doing everything you can to minimize your stroke risk.
It is also important to incorporate healthy behaviors into your lifestyle. Work with your doctor to determine whether you need to change your diet, start exercising, begin medication, or adopt any other healthy lifestyle habits such as the avoidance of tobacco products.
You can learn more about stroke at the following links:
About David Sommer, MD
Dr. David Sommer originally thought he was going to be a scientist when he was in college at Rice University, and thought about getting a Ph.D. in physics. However, after volunteering at a hospital in Houston when he was an undergraduate, he became more interested in medicine. “After a while, I found out that I enjoyed working with people every day more than I enjoyed research, so I thought being a doctor made the most sense for me,” he...View profile View posts by this doctor