It’s National Stroke Awareness Month

Do you know how to prevent a stroke, how to identify symptoms or what to do if one occurs? National Stroke Awareness month is designated every May to increase public awareness of strokes in effort to prevent them, act F.A.S.T. when they occur and spread hope to victims.

Strokes are a leading cause of death and disability in the United States. Each year 795,000 people will suffer from a stroke in the United States and 133,000 people will die. There are, however, 7 million stroke survivors in the U.S. It becomes apparent that many people are affected by strokes whether they themselves are a victim or they know someone who has had one. Yet strokes are still under-recognized and not well-understood among many.

What is a stroke?

The brain needs a constant supply of blood, which brings the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. Blood vessels that carry blood to the brain from the heart are called arteries. Each artery supplies blood to specific areas of the brain. A stroke is sometimes referred to as a “brain attack” it occurs when one of these arteries to the brain either is blocked or bursts interfering with the blood flow to a specific area of the brain. The result is that part of the brain doesn’t get the blood it needs, and cells begin to die. The ability to control that part of the brain is lost or damaged without those cells. Common abilities lost or damaged include speech, movement and memory. However, the severity of damage all depends on where the stroke occurred and how many cells died.

There are two types of strokes – ischemic and hemorrhagic. An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery, disrupting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of the brain. It is the most common type of stroke. Ischemic strokes can also be broken down to two types: embolic and thrombotic. An embolic stroke occurs when a blood clot or plaque fragment develops somewhere in the body and travels through the bloodstream ending in the brain. A thrombotic stroke is a blood clot that does not move, but rather builds inside an artery that supplies blood directly to the brain.

Hemorrhagic, the second type of stroke occurs when a blood vessel erupts in the brain that causes blood to spill into the brain. High blood pressure and brain aneurysms can both cause the blood vessel to become fragile and can trigger this type of stroke.

Timing is critical when dealing with a stroke – every second and minute counts. The treatment can be more effective if given as soon as a symptom starts. Some common stroke signs and symptoms include sudden numbness or weakness of your face, arm or leg (even more so if you notice this is occurring on one side of your body), trouble with talking, understanding or seeing. Other symptoms include difficulty in walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination and sudden severe headache without reason. Less common symptoms include sudden nausea and vomiting or brief loss of or decreased consciousness.

Strokes happen FAST and it’s important you act FAST too.

F = FACE: Ask the person to smile.

A = ARM: Ask the person to raise both arms. One arm will drift downward.

S = SPEECH: Ask the person to speak a simple sentence. The may not be able to speak or have slurred speech.

T = TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

There are a number of reasons people do not respond to stroke symptoms. Many people don’t recognize the symptoms, some have denial and others think nothing can be done. Concern about the cost and thinking their symptoms will eventually stop, are other reasons people don’t respond to stroke symptoms. However, if you have any of these symptoms or see someone else with them, call 911 immediately. Don’t forget every minute counts.

Ischemic strokes can be treated by a clot busting medication called tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), which must be given with three hours of when the symptom started. Patients will need to get to the Emergency Room within one to two hours of the symptom onset in order to allow for enough time to have a head CT scan to confirm the patient isn’t bleeding in the brain prior to taking the medication. tPA can reverse the damaging effects of some strokes if given within the three-hour time frame. Beyond three hours the options to reverse the disturbing effects are limited.

Reducing your risk

Both men and women are victims of stroke. And while most strokes occur in people 65 years or older, they can occur at any age – everyone has some stroke risk. There are risk factors beyond your control, include being over the age of 55, being African-American, Pacific/Islander or Hispanic, having diabetes, and having a family history of stroke. However, roughly 80 percent of strokes can be prevented. Medical stroke risks that can be controlled include: a previous stroke, previous episode of TIA, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, atrial fibrillation and carotid artery disease. In addition, lifestyle stroke risk factors can also be controlled. These types of risks include: smoking, being overweight and drinking too much alcohol. You can control these lifestyle risk factors by quitting smoking, exercising regularly, watching what and how much you eat and limiting alcohol consumption.

Take control of your health and reduce your risks of a stroke, know the symptoms in the event one happens, act F.A.S.T and influence others to do the same.

Michael J. Willerth, M.D., is a board-certified surgeon affiliated with UnityPoint Clinic – Surgery in Fort Dodge.