How to Recognize the Signs of a Stroke
Timing is everything when it comes to certain health and medical conditions. Acting quickly to get a person the help they need if they are experiencing a stroke can make all the difference.
To move quickly and get a person help, it's important to understand what the signs of a stroke are. Knowing how stroke symptoms are different from heart attack symptoms and where a person can go if they are having a stroke is also important.
Stroke vs. Heart Attack
Although heart attacks and strokes have some things in common, they usually have considerably different symptoms and treatments. Both strokes and heart attacks occur when there is a blockage in the blood vessels. The location of the blockage is important. When a person has a heart attack, the coronary artery is usually blocked, so that blood doesn't flow to the heart.
Common signs of a heart attack include chest pain and shortness of breath. Some people develop pain or discomfort in other areas of the body when they are having a heart attack, such as in the arms, stomach or back3.
When someone has a stroke, a blood vessel leading to the brain typically becomes blocked. The supply of oxygen to the brain is cut off along with the blood flow, so that brain cells begin to die1.
Types of Stroke
There are two main types of stroke: ischemic and hemorrhagic. The majority, nearly 90%, of strokes are ischemic2, meaning that a blood clot or plaque is blocking a blood vessel to the brain. In the case of a hemorrhagic stroke, a blood vessel becomes weak and eventually ruptures.
A third type of stroke is often called a "mini stroke." The more formal name is a transient ischemic attack, or TIA. During a TIA, the flow of blood to the brain is only temporarily blocked, such as for periods of five minutes or less4.
The symptoms of a TIA are usually the same as the symptoms of any other kind of stroke, at least in the beginning. In many cases, a TIA can be a warning sign that a person will experience a major stroke in the near future.
Whether someone is experiencing a mini stroke, an ischemic stroke or hemorrhagic stroke, they need medical attention ASAP.
Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke
While the symptoms of a heart attack are usually in the chest area, the symptoms of a stroke, sometimes called a "brain attack," are often in the head. Stroke symptoms usually come on quickly, with little or no warning. Some common signs that a person is having a stroke include:
● Trouble seeing, either in one or both eyes.
● Dizziness or a loss of balance that affects a person's ability to walk.
● Sudden, unexplained, severe headache.
● Confusion, trouble with speech or difficulty understanding others.
● Numbness in the face, leg or arm, usually affecting one side of the body.
The acronym FAST is often used to help people recognize the signs and symptoms of a stroke, both in themselves and in others. FAST also reminds you of the importance of moving quickly if someone seems to be having a stroke:
● F: Facial drooping or numbness. Try to smile or ask the other person to smile.
● A: Arm weakness or numbness. Try to lift both arms up or ask the other person to do it. Does one arm fall back easily?
● S: Slurred speech. When you or the other person speaks, are the words slurred or do they otherwise sound strange?
● T: Time to take action. If you see any one of the three signs above, someone needs to call 911 immediately.
One thing worth noting is that the symptoms of a TIA usually clear up pretty quickly, often before an emergency medical team can arrive or before a person gets to a stroke center. Even if someone seems better quickly, they should still get medical help5.
What to Do in Case of a Stroke
In the event of a stroke, literally every second counts. The sooner a person gets treatment, the better their chances of making a full recovery. Even if your symptoms seem mild or you feel fine after a few minutes, it's vital that you call 911 and have an emergency medical team bring you to a hospital that is a recognized Primary Stroke Center.
Another reason why time is so important when someone is having a stroke is that certain treatments are more effective the sooner a person receives them. A tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA, can help to break up the clots that often cause ischemic strokes. To work, the medicine needs to be given within three hours of symptoms appearing6.
When you or someone you know is experiencing a stroke, treatment can begin in the ambulance on the way to the stroke center. The emergency medical team can collect essential information from you during the ride over that will not only determine where they bring you, but also allow them to give the doctors at the hospital the details they need to quickly diagnose a stroke and begin the best treatment.
1. About Stroke, Centers for Disease Control, https://www.cdc.gov/stroke/about.htm
2. Types of Stroke, American Stroke Association, https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/types-of-stroke
3. Heart Attack and Stroke Symptoms, American Heart Association, https://www.heart.org/en/about-us/heart-attack-and-stroke-symptoms
4. Types of Stroke, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/stroke/types_of_stroke.htm
5. What is a TIA?, American Stroke Association, https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/types-of-stroke/tia-transient-ischemic-attack/what-is-a-tia
6. Stroke Treatment, CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/stroke/treatments.htm