According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke every year, and 1 out of every 20 deaths is related to this condition. Strokes are also a leading cause of disability in the U.S., as they can cause paralysis, vision loss, memory loss and speech changes. Despite these seemingly grim statistics, early medical treatment can prevent long-term damage and provide the best chance for a full recovery. So it's important to know the common signs of a stroke, and to ensure anyone with stroke symptoms, even the early signs, seeks immediate medical attention.
A stroke occurs when the brain is deprived of oxygen-rich blood. This lack of oxygen damages brain cells and creates a loss of function to the parts of the body these brain cells control. While most strokes are caused by a clot which blocks blood flow to the brain, a stroke can also occur when a blood vessel ruptures and leaks into the brain. To educate the public, the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association developed an acronym called FAST to encourage anyone with stroke symptoms to seek immediate treatment:
- F is for face drooping or numbness. Others may notice a smile that is uneven or lopsided.
- A is for arm weakness or numbness. Also, when both arms are raised, one arm may drift downward.
- S is for speech difficulty, particularly slurred or difficult to understand speech.
- T means it's time to call 911. Don't delay, even if the symptoms go away. Early intervention is critical to avoid or minimize long-term effects.
Other Early Symptoms
Other stroke symptoms may appear on their own or along with face, arm and speech changes. The following stroke warning signs also warrant immediate medical attention:
- Sudden, severe headache.
- Dizziness, a lack of coordination or trouble walking.
- Sudden difficulty seeing in one or both eyes.
- Abrupt onset of confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech.
- Sudden face, arm or leg weakness or numbness, especially on one side of the body.
Don't Ignore Temporary Symptoms
If the blood supply to the brain is blocked only briefly, stroke symptoms may be temporary and only noticed for a few seconds or minutes. This is called a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or a mini-stroke. However, mini-strokes should not be taken lightly. In fact, having a TIA greatly increases the chance of having a stroke, and seeking immediate medical attention is critical. A study published in the March 2005 issue of "Neurology" found that 43 percent of all stroke victims had a TIA in the 7 days prior to the stroke. However, 17 percent had their first TIA on the same day as the stroke.
If you or someone you know experiences any stroke or TIA symptoms, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room -- even if the symptoms subside. Early treatment with medications that dissolve clots and restore blood flow to the brain will improve the chance of a full recovery. Even if your symptoms turn out to be related to a TIA, your doctor can recommend treatment options and lifestyle changes to reduce your future stroke risk. If you have any concerns about your risk of stroke, see your doctor.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD