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By: Darla Van Heerde, M.D.
May is National Stroke Awareness Month. Each year, about 700,000 people suffer a stroke, making it the third leading cause of death in the United States (behind heart disease and cancer.)
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. There are two types of strokes, both serious and life threatening. The most common type of stroke, an ischemic stroke, occurs when there is an abrupt blockage of arteries leading to the brain. Other strokes, known as hemorrhagic strokes, are caused when a blood vessel bursts and there is bleeding into the brain.
The most common warning sign of stroke is a sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg – most often on one side of the body. There are other warning signs as well. These warning signs most often come on suddenly and include: trouble walking; dizziness; falling; confusion; trouble speaking; difficulty swallowing; the inability to understand others; difficulty with vision in one or both eyes; severe headache with no known causes which may be followed by a loss of consciousness.
Symptoms that pass quickly may indicate a mini-stroke, or transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is a brief blockage of blood flow to the brain and often precipitates a stroke. It is a warning sign that should not be ignored.
The warning signs of stroke depend on the side of the brain that is affected as well as which part of the brain that is injured and how severe the injury is.
Most often, stroke occurs rapidly and requires immediate treatment. Damage to the brain may continue even after stroke symptoms cease. If you experience, or see someone else experience one or more of the above symptoms (even if they go away quickly), get medical help immediately. Some treatments must begin within the first few hours of symptoms in order to prevent further damage to the brain.
Because a stroke occurs rapidly and requires immediate medical attention, it is sometimes called a brain attack. Lack of blood supply to the brain is just that – an attack that makes it impossible for the brain to function normally. Results of a stroke are often drastic and can be fatal.
A person may lose control over movement, have distorted perception, difficulty or loss of speech, and impairment of other mental and bodily functions. Follow-up medical care and long-term rehabilitation are often needed.
There are certain medical conditions that increase your risk for stroke. These include history of stroke or mini-strokes (TIAs), high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol levels (specifically LDL levels), and heart disease. Taking care to manage these conditions through diet, exercise and routine medical care can help to reduce your risk.
Controllable risk factors for stroke are a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, stimulant drug abuse, smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, use of birth-control pills and stress. To decrease these risk factors, you should exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy diet – especially one that is low in saturated fats. You should also avoid use of amphetamines, cigarettes, and limit alcohol consumption. Women with high blood pressure should avoid using birth-control pills. If necessary, you should take action to decrease the stress levels in your life.
There are certain uncontrollable risk factors associated with stroke. One is age. Stroke is more common in people over 60. Both men and women have strokes, however they are more common in men. Heredity and ethnicity also influence the likelihood of stroke. African-Americans and Hispanic Americans have a greater risk of stroke than the general population.
On the average, someone in the United States suffers a stroke every 45 seconds. Someone dies of a stroke about once every three minutes. The average person waits 13 hours after his or her first stroke warning signs before going to a hospital for treatment. Often this is too late. Irreparable damage has already occurred to the brain. The first minutes and hours after the first warning signs are critical to the overall outcome for a stroke victim. Even after symptoms appear to end, damage is often still happening within the brain. Immediate medical attention is needed to help stop this damage. If you or someone you know experiences any of the warning signs of a stroke, do not wait. Call 911 or get immediate medical help.
Dr. Van Heerde is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.