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Understanding stroke

Posted on May. 26, 2021 ( comments)

Did you know that May is National Stroke Awareness Month? The word “stroke” alone can conjure up anxious thoughts, fear and questions. We’re here to answer some of the most common questions about strokes and to help ease your concerns. 

What is a stroke?

A stroke is caused by the disruption of blood flow to an area of the brain. The seriousness of the damage depends on what area of the brain is affected and how quickly the stroke is treated. A stroke may compromise your strength, coordination, vision, sensation, walking or language (speech or your ability to understand others). 

An ischemic stroke is the most common type of stroke and is the result of a blocked artery, which results in a lack of blood flow to the brain. Another type of stroke is a hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke. These can be the result of either an intracerebral hemorrhage or a subarachnoid hemorrhage. Intracerebral hemorrhage is bleeding in the brain due to a broken blood vessel. Subarachnoid hemorrhage happens when a damaged blood vessel ruptures at the surface of the brain, causing blood to spill into the space between the brain and the skull. Bleeding strokes are often more severe than ischemic strokes, although either type may cause serious symptoms.  

When should I seek care for a stroke?

People with new symptoms that might mean a stroke should seek care as soon as they notice symptoms. The earlier symptoms are treated, the greater the chance of a partial or full recovery; without treatment, there is a greater risk that symptoms may be permanent, or that a patient may experience another stroke.

“Therapies for stroke have evolved significantly in the past 20 years, with newer interventions available," says Kristofer A. Radcliffe, MD, PhD, a neurologist with MultiCare Neuroscience & Sleep Medicine - Puyallup. "Although some require evaluation immediately to be considered.”

Because time is such a critical factor in treating a stroke, it’s important not to wait to seek care.

What are common warning signs and symptoms of a stroke?

The American Stroke Association uses the acronym "F.A.S.T." to spot stroke signs and know when to seek emergency medical attention. Jon Ween, MD,a neurologist with MultiCare Rockwood Clinic, recommends adding to the acronym to make it "B.E. F.A.S.T." 

Balance off: Are they having difficulties standing or sitting upright? Does it seem like their balance is shaky or off?

Eyes: Are their eyes tracking correctly? Do they appear to have lost control of their eye movements in one or both eyes? 

Face drooping: Is one side of the face drooping or numb? If the person smiles, is the smile uneven or lopsided? 

Arms weak: Is one arm weak or numb? Can the person raise both arms without one arm drifting downwards?

Speech: Is the person’s speech slurred? Are they having a difficult time speaking or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence to evaluate their quality of speech.

Time to call 9-1-1: If the person is showing any of the previous symptoms, even if they go away, it’s time to call 9-1-1 and get them to a hospital immediately. 

While the B.E. F.A.S.T. acronym can be a great way to quickly assess symptoms, there are other warning signs to look out for, ncluding sudden confusion, sudden trouble seeing out of one or both eyes, sudden trouble walking or difficulty with balance, and sudden severe headache. If a person is exhibiting any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek medical assistance as soon as possible. 

What are the risk factors associated with a stroke?   

There are several different risk factors of strokes, but the good news is many of them are controllable.

“Education on risk factors for stroke is so important as most risk factors are lifestyle related — hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, unhealthy diet and smoking — and we have the power to make changes to reduce our risk of having a stroke," says Nicole Michaud-West, stroke coordinator at MultiCare Deaconess Hospital.

Small changes in your lifestyle such as eliminating smoking, switching to healthier meal options — Dr. Ween recommends a diet that is high in fruits, veggies, fish, olive oil and unrefined grains — and exercising regularly can also contribute to reducing your risk of stroke.

“One thing we have been seeing over time is an increase in the number of strokes in people under the age of 55," Michaud-West adds. "And this has been tied to the increased incidence of these risk factors, which were traditionally seen mostly in older adults.”

So it's never too early to make small changes, as they can affect your health in a big way.

“Research has shown that 80 percent of stroke risk is embedded in blood pressure, diabetes, weight, smoking and adherence with medical regimen," says Dr. Ween. "Hence, stroke risk could potentially be reduced by 80 percent if these issues are seriously and consistently addressed.”

If you are concerned about your risk of stroke, it’s a good idea to visit your doctor, who can assess your risks and provide information and advice for managing your health. While May is officially National Stroke Awareness Month, it’s always important to be informed.

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Taylor Shewchuk
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