Recognizing Stroke Symptoms

Recognizing Stroke Symptoms

When a stroke occurs, quick action could mean the difference between life and death, consciousness and a long-term coma, mobility and permanent paralysis. Because the blood clot or hemorrhage that caused the stroke reduces blood flow to the brain, receiving prompt treatment is necessary to reduce permanent brain damage. The sooner the person suffering a stroke can get to the hospital (ideally within 90 minutes of the onset), the sooner he or she will have access to treatments that can prevent or reduce disability.

But one of the biggest obstacles to stroke sufferers receiving emergency treatment is the fact that many people are not aware of stroke symptoms and are unable to identify when a stroke is occurring.

Could you recognize if you or someone around you was having a stroke? Take this quiz and find out.

1. Carol is a 36-year-old healthy woman. She wakes up one morning feeling groggy, with clammy hands. She feels a little dizzy and has pins and needles in her legs. A few hours pass and these symptoms go away. Are these symptoms early signals of a stroke?

  • Yes
  • No
  • I don't know

1. Yes, Carol's feelings of dizziness and the tingling in her legs could be symptoms of a transient ischemic attack (TIA). Call 911. Although sometimes described as a "mini" or "light stroke," they should not be taken lightly. A TIA is a warning sign that you could have a more severe stroke in the near future. In fact, roughly one-third of all TIA cases have a full-blown stroke at some point down the road. Symptoms such as Carol's -- in addition to sudden loss of vision, weakness on one side of the body, and difficulty speaking and/or walking -- may last only minutes or a few hours and then pass, leaving you back to normal. The elderly are at highest risk of stroke. However, 28 percent of people who suffer a stroke in a given year are under age 65.

Among women under 45, stroke is more common than heart attack. Women have a one in five chance of dying of a stroke.

2. Julius, a 70-year-old man with a history of high cholesterol and smoking, has a pounding headache, begins having slurred speech, and his vision becomes blurred. What steps should Julius take?

  • Take some aspirin and rest
  • Make an appointment with his doctor
  • Call 911
  • I don't know

2. Call 911. Julius is displaying three stroke warning signs: headache, slurred speech, and blurred vision. And he has three factors that make him a more likely stroke candidate: his age, his smoking habit, and his cholesterol level. Stroke risk doubles every decade over age 55. High cholesterol can cause arteries to narrow and decrease blood flow to the brain, increasing the risk of stroke. Tobacco use causes blood vessels to narrow, which can increase blood pressure and, in turn, stroke risk. Although a stroke often comes without warning, there are certain people who are more at risk than others. Seventy-year-old Julius is one such person.

3. Sixty-five-year-old Claire suddenly starts shaking and convulsing in her office and her heart rate becomes extremely elevated. Is Claire having a stroke?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Maybe

3. No, sudden body movement, shaking, and convulsing are not typical stroke symptoms. However, Claire may be having a seizure, so prompt medical attention is required. In addition, because Claire is over age 60, an unexplained seizure could mean she is at an increased risk for stroke. A recent study found that a first-time seizure after age 60 means an almost threefold higher risk of stroke.

4. Twelve-year-old Tim is outside playing an aggressive game of basketball. After a couple hard knocks, he tells his friends he cannot feel his arm and has no control over it. He goes home and tells his parents that his arm feels "heavy." What should Tim's parents do?

  • Make an appointment with Tim's doctor
  • Wait a few days to see if his symptoms go away
  • Call 911
  • I don't know

4. Call 911. Although strokes are not common in children, it's important to realize that there are certain types of strokes that occur in kids and that younger patients may try to ignore or rationalize their symptoms. Tearing, or dissection, of an artery is the leading cause of stroke in young people. It can result from sudden twisting or trauma to the neck or head, which then closes off blood supply to parts of the brain.

Note: People of all ages, including children, have strokes. But the older you are, the greater your risk for stroke. Two-thirds of all strokes occur in people over 65.

By learning more about stroke warning signs you could help stroke sufferers get the prompt medical care needed to minimize the brain damage caused by stroke and ensure the best recovery.

Why Prompt Treatment Is Required
When a stroke occurs, the key is to clear the artery blockage before the affected part of the brain has been without blood for too long. Once a patient arrives at the hospital after a stroke, he or she is evaluated to determine if the stroke was caused by a blood clot -- the most common cause -- or by a hemorrhage. When a blood clot is the cause, and no more than a few hours have passed since stroke onset, tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) may be administered. This drug dissolves clots so that circulation is restored to the brain.

If the stroke is caused by hemorrhaging or bleeding in the brain, a drug such as tPA cannot be used. These kinds of strokes, which are less common than strokes caused by clots, usually require more invasive treatments. However, therapies to treat the various stroke types are currently being researched and evaluated and many promising new treatments are emerging.

Why Do Symptoms Vary?
Strokes affect people in different ways, depending on the type of stroke, the area of the brain affected, and the extent of the brain injury. Brain injury from a stroke can affect speech, motor activity, cognitive ability, behavior, memory, and emotions. Paralysis or weakness on one side of the body is common, and in many cases, the person may fall down. But a stroke does not have to produce severe physical symptoms to cause damage. In fact, a patient may experience only mild dizzy spells, loss of balance, and numbness and discount the symptoms as something else.

The Effects of Stroke
Stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and it is the leading cause of serious long-term disability. Depending on the location of the obstruction and how much brain tissue is affected, a stroke sufferer may:

  • Have some one-sided paralysis
  • Be unable to walk, eat, bathe, dress, etc. without some assistance
  • Have trouble speaking or understanding the speech of others

Current statistics show that more than 20% of men die within one year of having an initial stroke. However, spotting stroke signs and seeking prompt treatment will help improve these odds and minimize long-term health risks.

Ask 3 Simple Questions
Although symptoms of a stroke are sometimes difficult to identify, this basic 1-minute test will help you identify the facial weakness, arm weakness, or speech problems that typically occur after a stroke. Ask the person to do the following three tasks:

  • Smile
  • Raise both arms
  • Speak a simple sentence

If he or she has trouble with any of these, immediately call 911 and describe the symptoms. If an individual can complete these tasks but displays other symptoms, they may still require emergency attention.

Know the Signs, and Act Fast
Stroke is a treatable condition, but the treatment window is small. Learn to recognize the warning signs, and if stroke is suspected, dial 911 immediately. Don't try to diagnose the problem yourself, and don't wait to see if the symptoms go away. Time is crucial to saving brain cells and lives.

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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