During a stroke, every second that goes by is another second that your brain is being deprived of the nutrients and oxygen it badly needs to keep you functioning and alive. Strokes are also incredibly common – in fact, every 40 seconds, someone in the U.S. has a stroke, and it is the fourth leading cause of death in the U.S. That’s why it’s crucial that everyone knows how to spot early signs of a stroke and what to do in the event of this potentially life-threatening situation.
Strokes occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. Approximately 85% of strokes are ischemic, which means that an artery in your brain has become too narrow or blocked to allow enough blood to pass through. Ischemic strokes may occur when a blood clot forms in a cerebral artery, or when a clot or other debris forms elsewhere in your body and travels through your blood to the arteries in your brain. Fatty deposits or atherosclerosis in your arteries can lead to ischemic strokes. Less commonly, a stroke may be hemorrhagic, which is when one of the brain’s blood vessel bursts, leading to bleeding into or around the brain. High blood pressure and aneurysms put you at risk for this type of stroke.
Identifying symptoms of a stroke quickly and getting immediate help helps preserve crucial brain function and dramatically improves survival for people suffering from a stroke. This simple trick from the American Stroke Association can help you remember early signs of a stroke. When you see these symptoms, act F.A.S.T:
Facial droop – Is one side of the face drooping, uneven or numb? If the person smiles, does one side of their mouth appear uneven compared to the other?
Arm weakness – Does one arm look or feel weak or numb? If the person raises both arms, does one arm fail to move or drift downward?
Speech difficulty – Does the person’s speech sound slurred, are they difficult to understand or are they unable to speak? Ask them to repeat a simple sentence and see if they can do so accurately.
Time to call 911 – Any of the symptoms listed above mean that you should call 911 and get to the hospital immediately, regardless of whether the symptoms last or disappear. Note what time the symptoms first appeared so that you can tell the paramedics and doctors – how long the symptoms have lasted will likely affect treatment.
Sometimes, the symptoms of a stroke may resolve on their own over minutes or hours. This could mean it was a transient ischemic attack, or TIA. Like a full stroke, a TIA is due to reduced blood supply to the brain, but the interruption in blood flow is temporary enough that it does not result in permanent brain damage. TIAs may be a warning sign of a serious stroke to come and half of strokes occur within two days of a TIA. It can be very difficult to distinguish between a TIA and a stroke. Get emergency medical attention for any of the above symptoms, no matter what.
If possible, it’s important to get anyone with symptoms of stroke to a hospital that is a stroke center, which is best prepared to treat strokes as quickly and effectively as possible. Emergency personnel should know where the closest stroke center is. After arriving at the hospital, the affected person will quickly receive a CT scan that will look to see if it is a hemorrhagic stroke. If not, and the symptoms have been present for less than 4.5 hours (this number may vary slightly), the person will likely receive special medications to break up the clot and restore blood flow to the brain.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month, so make sure you take this opportunity to remember these easy tips. By paying attention to these worrisome signs and acting fast, you could save yourself or someone else from serious disability or death.