Signs of Stroke

Many women in the U.S. don’t know the signs of a stroke, according to a new study published today in the journal Stroke. This all-too common problem is delaying life-saving treatment and putting women at an increased risk of death and long-term disability, researchers say.

"This lack of recognition of stroke signs and symptoms could be a significant barrier to reducing death and disability related to stroke in the United States," study principal investigator Dr. Lori Mosca, a professor of medicine at Columbia University, said in a press release. "This is critically important because a delay in getting care costs lives and hinders functional recovery."

Among 1,205 women surveyed over the phone, the most commonly recognized sign of stroke was sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the face, arms, or legs, and 51 percent of women correctly identified it. Forty-four percent of women correctly named difficulty speaking or understanding speech as another sign of stroke.

In the U.S. each year, 55,000 more women than men have a stroke. This emergency condition, which cuts off the blood supply to the brain, is the third leading cause of death in women, according to the American Heart Association. 

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Women Know to Dial 9-1-1 but Don't Know When

While 84 percent of women surveyed knew that they should call 9-1-1 if they were having a stroke, many women still did not recognize all the signs of a stroke. Several symptoms were recognized by fewer than one in four women, including sudden severe headaches, unexplained dizziness, and sudden vision loss.

In addition to these classic stroke signs, women having a stroke may also report other symptoms, including sudden chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, and hiccups. Women’s knowledge of these symptoms was not assessed in the survey.

“There are a couple of nice studies that show that women are slightly less likely to get the classic signs of weakness and double vision, and are more likely to get headache and syncopy [fainting] and dizziness,” said Dr. Rafael Llinás, an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who was not part of the new study.

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Recognizing Signs Means Faster Treatment

When it comes to a stroke, fast treatment is crucial, which means knowing the signs.

“The waiting is actually the big problem,” Llinás said. “It’s especially the case for stroke. Within the first short period of time you can give people thrombolytic [drugs] to open up the blood clots that are causing stroke, but not after a certain amount of time.”

Another recent study in the journal Stroke conducted by different researchers highlighted the importance of fast stroke treatment.

They found that speeding stroke treatment with clot-busting drugs gave the survivors at least one more healthy day in the long term. Every 15-minute delay, though, robbed them of one month of disability-free life.

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Better Stroke Education Is Key

While some people think of stroke as a disease of older adults, women should be aware that it’s not just confined to overweight elderly smokers with high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Even younger women are at risk of stroke due to taking birth control pills—especially if they also smoke cigarettes—and preeclampsia, or high blood pressure that develops during pregnancy.

"It's so important to recognize a stroke and get quick treatment," Mosca said. "Public awareness campaigns such as F.A.S.T., along with education from healthcare providers, can help raise that awareness.”

The American Heart Association’s and the American Stroke Association’s F.A.S.T. acronym is one of the easiest ways to remember the principle signs of stroke:

  • Face drooping
  • Arm weakness
  • Speech difficulty
  • Time to call 9-1-1

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