Stroke of luck: Recognizing symptoms of a very serious medical condition


May is stroke awareness month, and this is a very serious and highly dangerous medical condition that requires immediate attention. So what is a stroke and what can be done to prevent or lessen the damage of this possibly fatal occurrence?

There are different types of strokes that can happen to an individual. These are:

Ischemic strokeoccurring when a blockage, usually a blood clot, prevents blood flow to the brain. The stroke occurs when a lack of of oxygenated blood flow creates dying brain cells, which is why quick medical intervention is vital. This type of blockage can lead to permanent brain damage and a long lasting disability.

The two primary types of ischemic stroke are embolic (a blood clot originally outside of the brain travels from the body, through an artery, to the brain, blocking blood flow). Thrombotic (a blood clot that has formed inside an artery within the brain then blocks blood flow). This type of stroke (ischemic) represents over 80 percent of all reported strokes.

TIATransient ischemic attack – these are sometimes referred to as a “mini-stroke,” and these also occur when a blockage prevents blood flow to the brain for a very short time (minutes). The most important thing to understand about a TIA is that it’s a warning sign and receiving appropriate care in a timely manner, as well as subsequent lifestyle changes, may be life saving. Symptoms experienced with a TIA are very similar to a stroke, which makes calling 911 and/or getting immediate medical intervention imperative.

Hemorrhagic strokehappen when an artery within the brain ruptures (breaks) or otherwise leaks blood leading to a hemorrhagic stroke. This sudden “drowning of the brain” in blood places pressure on brain cells, leading to there damage, and their eventual ceasing to work. The highest factor for hemorrhagic stroke is hypertension (high blood pressure).

This type of stroke occurs in two different ways: intracerebral (the hemorrhage affects the surrounding brain tissue at the locale) or subarachnoid (the hemorrhage affects the space between the skull and the brain, creating pressure). Subarachnoid strokes are far less common.

Risk factors individuals should be aware of for stroke prevention include both things that are in the individual’s control and outside of their control. These include (out of our control) age, gender, race, family history and personal history of prior stroke. Risk factors that are within our control are diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, lifestyle risks, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes.

Age, gender, race, and family history are things that none of us have control over and can not alter. It is important and relevant to be aware of genetic predisposition of stroke and corresponding diseases that may lead to stroke, in your family history. It is also prudent to be aware of your own personal risk factor, and take appropriate steps to mitigate your risk factors to the best of your ability with self care.

While prior stroke could have been possibly prevented, if it has already occurred the focus should be on making your loved ones, provider and others aware of this history, as well as taking appropriate lifestyle and medical preventative measures to decrease your chances of additional strokes.

Diet and exercise seem simple enough, but often prove difficult for many people. Eating an appropriate amount of calories for your body’s needs, including reasonable and safe physical activity into your daily routine, drinking water to maintain hydration, eating foods that are low in salt or salt free and avoiding fatty foods all help in this endeavor.

Smoking is very well documented to have multiple negative health consequences and should be avoided by individuals who have family history, and in fact all individuals. The affects of smoking in stroke are sometimes the least likely ill effect of this deadly habit, however stroke possibility, alone, is enough cause to begin smoking cessation or not take the habit up in the beginning. Smokers have twice the risk of stroke to their non-tobacco smoking peers.

Drinking, likewise, is well documented to be the cause of many health problems and stroke is no different in that respect. Excessive drinking, or irresponsible levels of alcohol consumption can lead to any of the types of strokes listed above.

Lifestyle risks include all of the above, as well as illicit drugs, dangerous or risky behaviors that may lead to stroke.

Health conditions are controllable, though they are often genetic in basis. These include high blood, which is often silent, not symptomatic, and requires frequent and regular checkups to identify and control, as well as the above listed lifestyle modifications. High cholesterol can lead to blockages in arteries directly, and require medication and lifestyle modification. Diabetes requires the individual to keep blood sugar levels under control to prevent strokes. Heart disease can have very direct implications for a stroke, as this may lead to clot formation.

Knowing all of this, what should anyone do if they, or someone near them, experiences a stroke. First, be aware of the warning signs. These include face drooping (one side of the smile is lower than the other, as well as possible eye, cheek or lip asymmetry). Arm weakness is the next sign (raise both arms to shoulder height and watch if one begins to “drift” or lower more quickly than the other). Slurred speech (is the person slurring their words, or does what they are saying make no sense or they do not understand your words). The person appears to be confused, or having trouble seeing or walking. The person is experiencing a very painful headache. The person is experiencing numbness on their face, legs or one side of their entire body.

If these symptoms are present call 911 immediately, or your local emergency services. It’s important at that time to report that you believe what is occurring is a stroke. With these symptoms time is of the essence, both to save the individual’s life and to minimize the damage from the stroke.

Medical professionals will often refer to this as F.A.S.T. a life saving a recovery intervention for potential victims and survivors. F.A.S.T. stands for Face, Arm, Speech, and Time.

Betty Cohn is a retired registered nurse with 35 years of experience in the medical field in a variety of roles. She will write a semi-monthly column about medical-related topics and welcomes questions and suggestions at