DEAR DOCTOR K:
What are the warning signs of stroke? Why is it important to be able to recognize them?
Nothing makes me sadder than to see someone suffer a stroke that could have been avoided. Not all strokes can be avoided, but many produce warning symptoms that can trigger preventive actions — if they are recognized.
Your brain relies on a steady supply of oxygen-rich blood to do everything. When the blood supply to any part of your brain is suddenly interrupted, it can have serious effects. You may lose strength, have trouble coordinating your movements, and have trouble speaking or understanding what people are saying to you. You may not be able to think clearly or remember things. You may have trouble seeing or hearing.
A stroke occurs when an injury to a blood vessel deprives a part of the brain of its constant blood supply. As a result, brain cells can die, taking with them the ability to move, speak, feel or think.
If the brain’s blood supply is quickly restored, a person may recover from a stroke with little or no disability. That’s why it is vital to recognize the warning signs of stroke in yourself and in others — and to get to an emergency room immediately if they occur.
If you experience any of these symptoms, immediately dial 911:
- Weakness in an arm, hand or leg.
- Numbness on one side of the body.
- Sudden dimness or loss of vision, particularly in one eye.
- Sudden difficulty speaking.
- Inability to understand what someone is saying.
- Dizziness or loss of balance.
- Sudden, lasting, excruciating headache.
The following Act FAST (Face, Arms, Speech, Time) checklist can help you determine whether someone else is having a stroke. If the answer to any of the questions below is yes, call 911:
FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. Are the words slurred? Does he or she fail to repeat the sentence correctly?
TIME: If the answer to any of these questions is yes, time is important. Call 911 or get to the hospital fast.
Early stroke treatment increases the chances of preventing significant brain cell death and disability. One of the main stroke treatment drugs is recombinant tissue plasminogen activator (tPA). It must be given within three hours of the start of stroke symptoms — and earlier is better.
I had a patient who suffered from atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm that increases the risk that blood clots will form in the heart, travel to the brain and cause a stroke. I could not convince him to take an anticoagulant drug to keep clots from forming.
In his early 60s, he suddenly had a devastating stroke that ended his capacity to work and to do the things he most enjoyed in life. Ever since, I’ve asked myself if I could have somehow done a better job of explaining why taking that medicine was so important. I hope the advice I’ve given here will help my readers take these warning signs seriously.