Editor’s Note: This article is part 1 of a 2-part series on stroke. Part 2 focuses on treating strokes.
It can happen to anyone. A blood vessel bringing oxygen-rich blood to the brain gets blocked, and a stroke results.
“Part of the brain can’t get oxygen, and those brain cells are compromised,” said Dr. David Cionni, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
Below, Cionni outlines things to know about strokes.
It’s important to “BE FAST” in recognizing the symptoms of stroke in order to respond quickly.
B: Balance becomes unsteady.
E: Eyes lose vision or vision doubles.
F: Facial droop
A: Arm weakness or numbness.
S: Speech difficulty.
T: Time to call 9-1-1.
Symptoms typically come on suddenly. Facial droop and weakness or numbness in a limb is often experienced on one side only. Slurred speech is the most common speech issue, but some people have difficulty finding words.
“Those are the three things that are going to be most obviously noticeable,” Cionni said.
People are often awake and alert when a stroke hits, so may actually notice symptoms in themselves.
If a stroke is suspected, it’s critical to get help immediately.
“It used to be when someone had a stroke, you sort of crossed your fingers and hoped they got better. Now, we have pretty amazing therapies, like clot-busting medications and mechanical procedures, but they’re time-sensitive,” Cionni said. “If you suspect this disease process, you don’t want to ask somebody to lie down and rest and see if it goes away.”
The impact a stroke may have depends on a range of variables, such as the size of the clot or blockage, and where it is in the brain, brain stem or body.
While 90% of strokes are ischemic, which means they’re caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, the other 10% are hemorrhagic, or caused by a bleed in the brain.
Various factors that increase risk for stroke can’t be controlled, such as older age, having a family history of the disease, or being black, Hispanic or a woman.
“A lot of people don’t know that stroke is the No. 3 cause of death in women,” Cionni said. “It kills more women than men. One out of five women will have a stroke in their lifetime.”
That makes it especially important for women to take stroke symptoms seriously, and not minimize or downplay what they’re experiencing.
Other risk factors are in your control: not smoking, exercising regularly, keeping cholesterol and blood pressure within a healthy range, and decreasing stress can all help lessen your risk of stroke.
“Stress is a big one. It increases your blood pressure and is well-known to cause atherosclerosis, heart disease and stroke,” Cionni said. “So, we could all benefit by incorporating modalities into our lives to decrease stress, such as meditation and yoga.”
Diet also plays a role: saturated fat and trans fats can increase cholesterol, eating too many calories can result in extra weight and increased salt can cause high blood pressure, all of which can increase risk of stroke.
While making lifestyle changes can be challenging, it has a big impact.
“People need to be aware that once a stroke happens, it has happened,” Cionni said. “Preventing it is the most important thing, so paying attention to those risk factors is critical.”
Even if the worst happens, there is hope.
“This used to be a pretty dismal disease, and it still is, but now there is great potential for immediate therapy,” Cionni said. “Also, if you have a stroke and have residual deficits, there’s significant potential to get a meaningful life back with intensive therapy.”
Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.