Time is Brain: You Don’t Feel a Stroke, But You Have Just Moments to Reverse It

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Photo by Reigh LeBlanc

May is National Stroke Awareness Month

By: Nima Ramezan, M.D., medical director, MemorialCare Neuroscience Institute, Long Beach Memorial

Strokes are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States and the no. 1 cause of disability, but many people don’t even know what a stroke is or what it feels like or looks like. Strokes are often associated with heart attacks, but a stoke is more of a “brain attack.”

A stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery or a blood vessel breaks, interrupting blood flow to the brain. In either case, the brain cells begin to die and there is cell damage. When the cells die, abilities that are controlled by that area of the brain are altered or lost. This could include speech and movement. The effects of the stroke depend on where the stroke is in the brain and how many cells have been damaged.

When someone suffers from a heart attack, they typically grab their chest and can feel pain. It is not immediately obvious when someone is having a stroke. You can’t feel the blood vessels breaking. Someone could be having a conversation with you and all of a sudden they get confused or slur their speech or develop one sided weakness, but your first thought isn’t a stroke.

In honor of May being Stroke Awareness Month, Long Beach Memorial wants you to identify the warning signs of a stroke and how you can prevent them.

Types of Stroke

There are two main types of strokes – ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are strokes that are caused when a blood clot blocks an artery and cuts off blood flow. Blood-clot strokes can occur when a clot travels to your brain and into a blood vessel. An ischemic stroke can occur in two ways – embolic and thrombotic. The blood clot can travel and suddenly block a blood vessel in the brain causing an embolic stroke. In a thrombotic stroke, blood flow is suddenly impaired from pre-existing blockage to an artery supplying blood to the brain.

Hemorrhagic strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain breaks. These types of strokes are caused by medical conditions that affect the blood vessels – high blood pressure and cerebral aneurysms. An aneurysm is a weak spot on a blood vessel wall.

Mini-Strokes

A transient ischemic attack (TIA), often described as a “mini-stroke,” occurs in a person who has stroke-like symptoms for one hour or several hours because of a temporary disturbance of blood supply to an area of the brain. A TIA occurs when blood flow to part of the brain is blocked or reduced, often by a blood clot. After a short time, blood flows again and the symptoms go away. With a stroke, the blood flow stays blocked, and the brain has permanent damage.
By definition, a TIA resolves within 24 hours, but most TIA symptoms resolve within a few minutes. In reality, this “mini-stroke” is a true stroke that has resolved or has improved functionality in the affected body part. TIAs are often warning signs of a future stroke if nothing is done to prevent it.

Stroke Warning Signs – Think F.A.S.T.

There are many signs of a stroke, but the most important thing to remember is to “Think F.A.S.T.” Facial droop, arm weakness, slurred speech and time are warning signs of a stroke. If you observe any of these signs, you should call 9-1-1 immediately. If necessary measures are taken within the first hours of the symptoms, damage to the brain cells can be reduced.

Other symptoms include sudden arm, leg or face weakness, sudden confusion or speaking, sudden trouble seeing, sudden trouble with balance and a sudden severe headache with no known cause.

Strokes are Preventable

Eighty percent of strokes are preventable. It is important to know the difference in risk factors you can control and risk factors you cannot. Uncontrollable risk factors include sex, age, family history and race. Even though you cannot change your genetic background, by making healthier lifestyle changes, you can reduce your risk for stroke. Controllable risk factors include smoking, cholesterol, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes and even stress.

It is important to understand that a stroke is a “brain attack” and needs to be treated as quickly as possible. Remember to think F.A.S.T. If you or someone you know are experiencing signs of a stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Information compiled from the American Stroke Association.

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