Stroke, also called a brain attack, occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood to a part of the brain (ischemic stroke), or when a blood vessel in the brain breaks and blood cannot flow to certain parts of the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). If oxygen-rich blood doesn’t reach the brain, brain cells begin to die and permanent brain damage can occur.
Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death, and it affects approximately 795,000 people each year, says the National Stroke Association. A vast majority of stroke victims survive and recover with rehabilitation, such as occupational, speech, and physical therapy. However, stroke complications are common. These may include:
- paralysis or muscle weakness on one side of the body
- difficulty swallowing or speaking
- memory loss or difficulty thinking and understanding language
- pain, numbness, or tingling sensations on the affected part of the body
- changes in behavior or mood
A stroke can cause temporary or permanent disability, depending on the severity of the stroke and how long blood flow was interrupted to the brain. With a stroke, the key is minimizing brain damage. The sooner you recognize signs of a stroke and seek medical attention, the better your chances are of recovering and avoiding serious brain damage or disability.
Sudden weakness or numbness in your arms, legs, or face is a classic sign of stroke, especially if weakness occurs on only one side of the body. If you smile and look in the mirror, you may notice that one side of your face droops. If you try and raise both arms, you may have difficulty lifting one side. Depending on the severity of the stroke, you may also have paralysis on one side of your body.
A stroke can cause sudden confusion. For example, if you’re typing on your computer or having a conversation, you may suddenly have difficulty speaking, thinking, or understanding speech.
Sudden Vision Problems
Loss of vision or difficulty seeing in one or both eyes is another symptom of stroke. You may lose your vision completely, or experience blurred or double vision.
Sudden Loss of Balance
Due to weakness on one side of the body, you may experience difficulty with walking, loss of balance or coordination, or dizziness.
If a severe headache develops suddenly with no known cause, you might be having a stroke. This headache might be accompanied by dizziness or vomiting.
If you’re having a stroke, you may experience one or multiple symptoms. It may not occur to you to immediately call 911. Although you’re likely to recognize odd symptoms or feel that something isn’t quite right with your body, you may not realize a serious problem until it’s too late.
Stroke symptoms can develop slowly over hours or days. If you have a mini-stroke, also known as transient ischemic attack (TIA), symptoms are temporary and usually improve within one or two hours. In this case, you may blame sudden symptoms on stress, a migraine, or nerve problems.
However, any signs or symptoms of stroke require further investigation by a doctor.
If you get to the hospital within three hours of the first symptoms of a ischemic stroke, your doctor can administer a medication to dissolve blood clots and restore blood flow to the brain. Fast action improves your odds of recovering fully after a stroke. It also reduces the severity of disabilities.
A simple FAST test can help you identify a stroke in yourself and others:
- F (Face): Ask the person to smile. Look for signs of drooping on one side
- A (Arms): Ask the person to raise their arms. Look for a downward drift on one side.
- S (Speech): Ask the person to repeat a phrase without slurring. For example, you could have them say, “The early bird catches the worm.”
- T (Time): Immediately call 911 if you or someone else you know shows signs of a stroke.
There are other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of a stroke, such as seizures and migraines. However, it’s important that you not self-diagnose. Even if you have a TIA and your symptoms disappear, don’t ignore the signs. A TIA increases the risk for an actual stroke, so you’ll need testing to determine the cause of this stroke, and you’ll need to start treatment to reduce your risk of another one. In fact, “more than a third of people who have a TIA end up having a major stroke within one year if they don't receive treatment,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).