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How to Spot a Stroke

Senior patient in hospitalStrokes are more common than you think. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and causes more serious long-term disabilities than any other disease. With more than 795,000 strokes each year in the U.S., it is imperative to know the signs and symptoms, before it is too late. John Kylan Lynch, DO, MPH, an osteopathic neurologist from Washington D.C., provides key information to help you spot the signs and prepare for this medical emergency.

Stroke Signs and Symptoms

Would you know if you or someone else was having a stroke? “It is critical to know the signs and symptoms of stroke, and the best way to react if ever faced with one,” says Dr. Lynch. According to Dr. Lynch, a stroke is due to a “piping problem” in the brain. When one of the pipes (blood vessels) gets blocked, blood flow to the brain is interrupted. As an effect, brain cells in the immediate area begin to die because they no longer receive the oxygen and nutrients they need to function. “Stroke signs and symptoms typically develop suddenly,” says Dr. Lynch. He recommends calling 911 immediately if you observe any of these signs or symptoms:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.

  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech.

  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes

  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination

  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Dr. Lynch also recommends asking these questions:

  • Ask the person to smile. Is the person's smile uneven? 

  • Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward? Is one arm weak or numb?

  • Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Is the sentence repeated correctly?  Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand?

“Note the time, so you can document when the symptoms started,” he says. “This information can help the physician determine the best course of action.”

Why You Should Act Fast

Every minute counts when someone is having a stroke,” says Dr. Lynch. “The longer blood flow is cut off to the brain, the greater the damage. Immediate treatment can save lives and prevent permanent disability,” he continues. According to Dr. Lynch, the length of time to recover from a stroke depends on its severity. While 50-70% of stroke survivors regain functional independence, 15-30% are permanently disabled.

For ischemic strokes, the most common kind of stroke, there is only a small window of opportunity to get treatment, with little or no disability after three months. These strokes can be treated with a drug called t-PA (tissue plasminogen activator) which is a clot-busting agent which dissolves the blockage. However, in order to be helpful, the drug must be given within 4.5 hours of the onset of stroke symptoms. Dr. Lynch notes, in addition to medications, some stroke centers are using mechanical devices to enter the brain to remove the clot. “Like t-PA, these procedures are only helpful if you get to the hospital immediately,” he says.

Stroke Risk Factors

Are you at risk for developing a stroke in your lifetime? “Stroke is more common as we get older, and occurs more often in men, African Americans, and Hispanics,” says Dr. Lynch. “Additionally, there are several risk factors for stroke that you can prevent with medication and changes in your lifestyle.” These include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Atrial fibrillation

  • Smoking

  • Diabetes

  • High cholesterol

  • Obesity

How to Reduce Your Risk

How can you reduce your risk? “If you have any of these risk factors, take it seriously,” stresses Dr. Lynch. “If you smoke – quit.  If you have high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or high cholesterol, get them under control and keep them under control – this will greatly reduce your chances of having a stroke,” says Dr. Lynch. “Take the time to monitor your blood pressure, track your cholesterol levels, exercise regularly, and eat a healthy diet.”

Prescription for Prevention

“The best treatment for stroke is prevention,” says Dr. Lynch. “Take your health into your hands by working with your physician to develop strategies to ensure you are in the best condition possible.”

Knowledge is power when it comes to strokes,” emphasizes Dr. Lynch. He recommends visiting http://stroke.nih.gov for more information about stroke risk factors, signs and treatment. “Knowing how to spot the signs and symptoms and act in the case of a stroke can make a monumental difference in your life and your long-term health,” he adds.

 

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