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Strokes qualify as a serious medical emergency and are triggered by poor blood circulation in the brain. Strokes can be of two types depending upon their root cause: ischemic and hemorrhagic.
Ischemic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain or neck develops a clot that obstructs the flow of blood to a specific area of the brain. The lack of blood supply deprives oxygen to that part of the brain, causing tissue death within a matter of minutes. (1)
Hemorrhagic strokes, on the other hand, are the result of ruptured blood vessels in the brain that cause internal bleeding.
Both these conditions have a sudden onset and can induce permanent brain damage, physical disabilities, or even death. The only way to minimize the risk of these grievous consequences is to seek prompt medical care at a hospital that specializes in stroke care.
However, many people don’t even realize that they are having a stroke until it’s too late and the damage is already done. Thus, the first thing you need to do is learn about the various warning signs of a stroke so that you can quickly identify it and immediately rush to the hospital.
Strokes are ranked as the second-leading cause of mortality worldwide and account for about 5.5 million deaths every year. Not just that, people who do manage to survive a stroke are often left severely disabled. Thus, strokes are a serious issue that needs to be taken care of. (2)
What Are the Warning Signs of a Stroke?
You can recognize a stroke attack using the following guidelines.
Act FAST to identify a stroke
Strokes are generally painless, which makes them hard to detect. They occur suddenly and silently but cause severe brain damage in a short duration. This is why prompt medical treatment is so crucial.
Stroke treatment needs to be initiated within 3 hours after the first symptom to avoid lasting and serious complications. Moreover, you may be denied hospitalization if you exceed this time window because the brain damage becomes irreversible by then.
This underscores the need for urgency when it comes to recognizing, diagnosing, and treating a condition as serious as this.
“Act FAST” is the principle you need to adhere to in order to avoid permanent brain damage from a stroke. Here, FAST refers to the warning signs that you need to look out for to quickly identify a stroke so that the patient can get to the hospital in time.
If you suspect that you or someone else is having a stroke, check for the following:
F — Facial drooping
Strokes are characterized by sudden numbness or weakness in the muscles, typically on one side of the body. It begins in the face and then spreads further down.
So, the first thing you will notice when having a stroke is that one-half of your face will begin to droop. You can confirm this by smiling in front of the mirror, which will show that one side of your mouth won’t go up, making your smile appear uneven. (3)
A — Arm weakness
The second major symptom of a stroke is one of your arms will suddenly start to lose sensation or strength. You can confirm this by trying to raise the affected arm. If you are unable to bring it up or hold it up, chances are you are having a stroke. (3)
S — Speech difficulties
A stroke hampers your ability to speak properly, which can seem like the patient is confused, lacks comprehension, or has slurred speech. Like the other symptoms of a stroke, this one also comes on suddenly.
You can check for this sign by asking the affected individual to repeat a simple phrase. If the words come out slurred or unclear, the person might be having a stroke. (3)
T — Time to act fast
The last letter “T” stands for “time to act fast” because a delay in treatment can render you mentally and physically handicapped for life or can be fatal. This is not a symptom but a call for timely action if you notice any of the previously listed signs of a stroke.
You need to rush to the hospital as soon as possible, but don’t drive yourself there. Instead, ask someone else to do it or call an ambulance so that life-saving treatment can be initiated on the way to the emergency room.
Moreover, you should note down the time when the symptoms first appeared, which can help your doctor determine the best course of treatment. (3)
Beyond FAST – Other symptoms you should know
Here are a few additional symptoms that may occur along with the characteristic signs of a stroke:
Transient ischemic attack (TIA)
In some cases, a clot temporarily blocks blood flow to the brain but then dissolves on its own. This can trigger some of the characteristic symptoms of a stroke, but they will last only a short while.
This is referred to as a transient ischemic attack (TIA) – or a “mini-stroke” – which can make you more susceptible to strokes in the future.
The doctor may order the following tests to confirm that the patient has undergone a stroke:
- Blood work to assess your cholesterol and blood sugar levels
- Pulse check to identify an irregular heartbeat
- Brain scans, preferably within 1 hour of arriving at the hospital, to look for blood clots and start anticoagulant treatment as quickly as possible if needed
- CT scans, which are preferred over MRI scans as they are less time consuming
- Carotid ultrasound scan
- Swallow tests, because strokes often hamper the patient’s ability to gulp down food and liquid properly, which may end up getting into the windpipe and eventually into the lungs, thereby increasing the risk of chest infections such as pneumonia (6)
How to Prevent a Stroke
Adopting these healthy habits may help lower your odds of developing heart disease or suffering a stroke:
- Regularly monitor your blood pressure and take necessary steps to control it if it’s running too high.
- Check your cholesterol levels regularly.
- Manage your diabetes properly to keep your blood sugar within the normal range.
- Quit smoking.
- Consume a healthy, well-balanced diet that focuses on fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains but runs low on saturated fats, salt, and sugar.
- Stay active and try to exercise regularly.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Get enough sleep.
- Keep stress under control as it can shoot up your blood pressure, which increases your risk of having a stroke.
- If you suffer a TIA or have a blocked carotid artery, seek treatment to lower the risk of strokes in the future. Carotid endarterectomy is the preferred procedure for this condition, which involves surgically removing plaque deposits that are clogging your artery to restore normal blood flow to the brain. This will also keep the artery from getting blocked again. (7)
- If you have suffered a stroke in the past, it is essential that you visit your cardiologist and endocrinologist regularly to make sure you are recovering properly and to catch any warning signs of another stroke in the future.
ALSO READ: Blood Thinners for Stroke Prevention
Temporary Stroke Versus Permanent Stroke
- Complete stroke – If the focal deficit (problem with the nerve functioning) is limited to a specific part of the brain and stops worsening. (8)
- Transient or temporary – If the focal deficit gets better within 24 hours. (7)
- Evolving – If the focal deficit continues to deteriorate even after 6 hours, which is mainly caused by brain lesions.
What Are the Risks Factors for Strokes?
Here are some things that can increase your likelihood of having a stroke:
- High blood pressure (hypertension) (9)
- Smoking tobacco
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Being overweight or obese
- High LDL (bad) cholesterol and low HDL (good) cholesterol levels
- Metabolic disorders such as diabetes
- Being male
- Being over 55 years of age
- African-American ancestry
- Previous history of a stroke or transient ischemic attack (also called a TIA or a mini-stroke)
- Family history of a stroke or TIAs
- Cardiovascular ailments such as arrhythmia
There is nothing you can do about some of these risk factors such as family history, age, gender, and race, but others can be effectively controlled to reduce your chances of having a stroke. (9)
When to See a Doctor
See a doctor without any delay when you observe or experience any of the symptoms of a stroke.
As explained at the beginning of the article, you need to act “FAST.” FAST means face, arm, speech, and time and are used to suspect early symptoms of a stroke. Early symptoms might include facial droop, weakness in the arm or leg, and slurred speech.
Expert Tips When Taking Care of a Patient With a Stroke
Stroke patients, after being discharged from the hospital, have a long road to recovery at home. They can hardly move and look after themselves. So, it becomes the responsibility of the family members to give them the care they need, often round the clock.
Here are some measures that can help your loved one heal faster and better:
- Consult the doctor about changes needed to maximize the patient’s health and safety at home, and implement them readily.
- Try to keep the patient motivated and build up their self-esteem, which might be low due to the debilitating neurological damage.
- Make the patient wear loose clothes rather than tightly fitted ones.
- If the patient can take liquids orally, offer them orally.
- Make sure the patient gets adequate nutrition. Patients who suffer from facial weakness after the stroke should be given a semisolid diet and asked to chew from the unaffected side of the mouth. Solid foods are harder not only to chew but also to digest, which can give rise to constipation, especially since the patient is mostly bedridden. The aim is to keep the patient from straining during defecation, which is why soft foods are recommended. Turn the patient on his/her side when vomiting to prevent aspiration.
- Clean the patient’s mouth regularly to avoid infections.
- Take care of the patient’s eyes by keeping them clean and protected.
- Turn the bedridden patient every 3 hours to reduce the risk of pneumonia and bedsores.
- Educate the patient and their family or caregivers about the recurring signs of a stroke such as severe headache, drowsiness, and confusion.
- Protect the patient from any unnecessary stress.
- Make sure the patient gets proper sleep on a regular basis.
- Give the patient a low-cholesterol and low-salt diet.
- Make sure the patient’s blood pressure and sugar levels are under control.
Most-Asked Questions About Strokes
Can strokes be treated?
Yes, all types of strokes can be treated.
Are strokes and seizures the same?
Strokes are related to the cardiovascular system and are caused by impaired blood supply, whereas epilepsy or seizures are related to the central nervous system and are caused by an abnormal electrical discharge in the brain.
Are only elderly people prone to strokes?
No, strokes can affect anyone but are more common among the elderly. Certain factors can increase your risk of having a stroke such as a sedentary lifestyle, undetected or poorly managed diabetes, hypertension, excessive alcohol consumption, and smoking.
The growing prevalence of these risk factors among the youth is increasing the incidence of strokes in this demographic as well.
Strokes are the number one cause of disability and the fifth-leading cause of death in the USA, which reflects how dangerous it can be. The good news is early detection and prompt medical treatment can help you avert these serious consequences.
This is why it is very important to learn about the warning signs of a stroke so that you can identify it quickly and get to the hospital as soon as possible. The sooner you start treatment, the lesser will be the brain damage.
Once your condition stabilizes, your doctor will recommend physical and rehabilitative therapy as well as healthy lifestyle choices to reverse the damage that has occurred.