How do I know if I am having a stroke?

Deb Cordes
Deb Cordes on behalf of Sigma Nursing
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

If you are having a stroke you may experience one or all of the following signs/symptoms. You may have sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body. This weakness can occur in the face or could be in either the arm or leg. You may experience a severe headache "worse you have ever had." You may experience dizziness and problems with your vision. You may have difficulty walking. You may have difficulty in speaking and your speech may be slurred. It is important to recognize any or all of the symptoms as the possibility that you are having a stroke. It is very important that you receive immediate medical attention by calling 911 or having someone call 911 for you. Receiving immediate attention is critical in reducing the amount of brain that is damaged.

To help you recognize if you are having a stroke, there is an acronym called FAST that stands for facial drooping, unable to lift arms, changes in speech and time to call 911. Make yourself familiar with what stroke looks like before you're in the situation. About one in six people will experience a stroke in their lifetime. If you think you're experiencing sudden neurological changes, the most important think you can do is act fast.

You may be having a stroke if acute stroke symptoms are present. Following are some of the symptoms that may indicate stroke:

  • facial drooping
  • decreased strength in one arm or leg (difficulty holding an arm up, like if holding a plate on the open hand with the stretched out arm, and one arm is weak and drops)
  • having a hard time coming up with words
  • having a difficult time with speech
  • acute imbalance
  • decreased level of alertness
  • double vision
  • ignoring one side of the world

Knowing the symptoms of stroke is important because prompt treatment is essential to avoid brain damage.

Even though ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes are different, their symptoms are similar. Here are the common symptoms of stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the extremities or face
  • Sudden problems with comprehension or speech
  • Sudden issues with vision, such as blurry vision or blindness
  • Sudden issues with coordination, including difficulty walking or dizziness
  • Sudden severe headache
  • Sudden vomiting or nausea

The main thing to remember is the sudden nature of stroke symptoms. The sudden onset is a huge tip-off that you may be suffering a stroke.

Often, people ignore the symptoms of a stroke and hope it will go away. Unfortunately, this is a serious mistake.

Once the symptoms appear, the clock has begun. Brain cells are dying, and for ischemic strokes, there is a very small window for some treatments. If someone goes to bed, hoping they can sleep off a sudden headache they are wasting valuable time.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

You may or may not notice anything unusual while suffering a stroke, but others observing you might. Symptoms can be telling because deficits typically match the area of the brain affected since the brain is divided into regions that control vision, hearing, movement, cognition and speech. Although it is difficult to tell hemorrhagic and ischemic strokes apart, a loss of consciousness, severe headache, nausea and vomiting may be a clue that pressure is building from a hemorrhagic brain bleed, which tends to be more life threatening. But symptoms are likely to be clinically similar for both types of stroke.

So if the event occurs in the ophthalmic artery or region, vision will be affected. If it occurs in the region of the brain responsible for language, speech will be affected. If weakness occurs on the right side of the body, a left-brain stroke is suspected.

Strokes can also produce seizures and subtle symptoms such as changes in memory, concentration, strength, sleep and mood.

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In a stroke, the blood supply to part of your brain is interrupted by a blocked blood vessel, and brain tissue is damaged. Typical warning signs of a stroke develop suddenly and can include:

  • weakness or numbness on one side of your body
  • sudden confusion or trouble understanding
  • trouble talking
  • dizziness, loss of balance, or trouble walking
  • trouble seeing out of one or both eyes
  • double vision
  • severe headache

Sometimes one or more of these warning signs occur but then disappear. That condition, called a transient ischemic attack or a TIA, occurs when blood flow is temporarily blocked. It means you may be at risk for a future stroke.

Use the acronym FAST to recognize stroke symptoms:

  • Face: Uneven smile, facial droop/numbness, vision changes
  • Arm: Arm and leg weakness and numbness, difficulty walking
  • Speech: Slurred, inappropriate words; mute/inability to speak
  • Time: Time is critical.

Call 911 if you have any of these symptoms.

You will know you are having a stroke if symptoms you have never experienced before come on very suddenly. Watch as neurologist Carolyn Brockington, MD, explains the red flags to be aware of and why it's crucial to get medical care immediately.

Symptoms of a stroke are relatively simple to understand. One of the key points about stroke is that symptoms occur suddenly. Symptoms include sudden headache or neck pain; sudden confusion; difficulty speaking; blurry, loss of or double vision; dizziness, vertigo, weakness or clumsiness on one side of the body; numbness, tingling, loss of sensation on one side of the body.

There’s generally a pattern of these symptoms affecting one side or another: face, arm, or leg on the same side. Occasionally symptoms will be crossed up, with the face numb on one side and the body numb on the other. Occasionally symptoms will occur on both sides at the same time or in rapid succession. 


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.