Signs of a Stroke and What To Do

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older woman feeling dizzy as she feels signs of a stroke
October 10, 2023

A stroke is a frightening prospect, but it can happen to anyone at any time. As we prioritize our health, it is always smart to remain aware of potential warning signs and to keep preventative strategies in mind if these signs arise. This blog post will discuss several signs of a stroke and what to do in their presence so that you can reduce the risk of a health scare and continue living your best life.

What is a stroke?

A stroke, or “brain attack,” occurs when blood flow to the brain is disrupted or stopped altogether. This is a very serious situation, since the brain needs a constant supply of nutrients to function, and brain cells begin to die after just a few minutes without blood flow. A stroke may impair your ability to move, speak, think, manage emotions, and control bodily functions. [1]

What are the Different Types of Strokes?

There are 2 main types of strokes:

  1. Ischemic Strokes occur when a blood clot or plaque buildup blocks or narrows a blood vessel, reducing blood flow to a specific part of the brain. This causes brain cells in that area to become deprived of oxygen and nutrients, leading to damage or death of those cells. Ischemic strokes account for the majority of stroke cases (about 85-90%).
  2. Hemorrhagic Strokes occur when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and causes bleeding into the surrounding brain tissue. The accumulation of blood puts pressure on the brain and often damages or destroys brain cells. Hemorrhagic strokes account for a smaller percentage of strokes but are generally more severe and life-threatening. 

Most Common Risk Factors for Strokes

There are several risk factors for a stroke. Many are unavoidable, such as the ones below: 

  • Age: Those who are older have a higher risk of stroke. For each decade after age 55, one’s chance of having a stroke more than doubles.
  • Race: African Americans are generally at a higher risk of stroke compared to Caucasians and Asians [2]
  • History of prior stroke: Having already had a stroke significantly increases one’s risk of having another.
  • Genetics: The chance of a stroke is greater in those with a family history of strokes. 

Controllable Risk Factors of a Stroke:

However, many risk factors can be changed, treated, or medically managed, such as the following [1]:

  • High blood pressure: A blood pressure of 140/90 or higher can damage the arteries that supply blood to the brain.
  • Heart disease: Heart disease is among the most important risk factors for a stroke and a major cause of death among survivors of a stroke.
  • Diabetes: Those with diabetes have a greater risk of stroke than those without.
  • Smoking: Smoking nearly doubles one’s risk for an ischemic stroke, which is the most common type of stroke.
  • Alcohol consumption: More than two drinks per day raises one’s blood pressure, increasing the risk of a stroke. Binge drinking also greatly increases the chance of having a stroke, and should be avoided.
  • Birth-control pills: Oral contraceptives containing estrogen may slightly increase the risk of stroke. [7] 
  • High red blood cell count: A high number of red blood cells thickens the blood and makes clots more likely.
  • High cholesterol levels: High cholesterol levels can contribute to atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries due to plaque, which can decrease or cut blood flow to the brain.
  • Lack of exercise: A regular exercise routine is always a good thing to have to manage the risk of stroke as well as overall health. 
  • Obesity: Each unit increase in body mass index (BMI) increases the risk of stroke by 5%. [8]
  • Abnormal heart rhythm: Having an irregular heartbeat, or (atrial fibrillation), is the most powerful and treatable heart risk factor for a stroke.

Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke

Several cues indicate that you may be having a stroke. Be aware of the ones below, as every moment counts when it comes to fast treatment.

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body): If you believe you may be experiencing numbness or weakness in one side of your face/body, try smiling. If one side of your face droops, this may be a bad sign. Next, try raising both arms. If one arm drifts downward, this too may be a bad sign, and you should contact your primary care doctor immediately.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech: To assess this, repeat a simple phrase, such as “The sky is blue.” If your speech comes out slurred or abnormal, this may be a sign you had a stroke.
  • Sudden difficulty seeing in one or both eyes. 
  • Sudden loss of balance/coordination or dizziness.
  • Severe headache of unknown origin.

A good way to remember the signs of a stroke is through the acronym FAST [1]

  • F – Face drooping
  • A – Arm weakness
  • S – Speech difficulty
  • T – Time to call 9-1-1

If your stroke symptoms go away after a few minutes, you may still not be in the clear. This may be an indication that you’ve had a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), also called a “mini-stroke.” Although brief, a TIA is a sign of a serious condition and requires medical attention (just like a major stroke does) [6].

What To Do During a Stroke

If you or someone you know shows any of the signs above, call 9-1-1 immediately.  

Emergency treatment after a stroke may include the following [1]:

  • Clot-busting medicines: Medicines like thrombolytics or fibrinolytics dissolve the blood clots that cause an ischemic stroke and help reduce the damage to brain cells caused by the stroke. They should be given within 3 hours of a stroke occurring.
  • Medicines to reduce brain swelling: Special types of IV fluids can be used to help reduce or control swelling in the brain. 
  • Neuroprotective medicines: These medicines help to further protect the brain from damage and lack of oxygen.
  • Life support measures: These include ventilators (which help with breathing) and IV fluids.
  • Craniotomy: This is a type of brain surgery done to remove blood clots, relieve pressure, or repair bleeding in the brain.

Senior Primary and Preventive Services at Greater Good Health

In conclusion, there are ample risk factors and signs we should be aware of when it comes to strokes. Though the prospect of a stroke is understandably frightening, keeping in mind what has been discussed in this blog post and promptly reaching out for medical assistance can help ensure a long and healthy life. Greater Good Health can help you stay healthy through preventive care and regular check-ups during senior primary care. Schedule an appointment with us today or find a location for senior primary care near you.