Health & Fitness

Doc Talk: Recognize the warning signs of a stroke

Nearly every 40 seconds, someone in the United States suffers a stroke, regardless of age or seemingly good health. It’s the leading cause of disability within the United States.

In Kansas, stroke is the fourth leading cause of death.

A stroke or a “brain attack” occurs when blood flow to part of the brain suddenly stops due to a blocked or ruptured blood vessel. When the blood flow stops, oxygen cannot circulate to that area of the brain. This usually leads to the death of many brain cells, the number of which is determined by both how large the blood vessel is and how long blood flow has been interrupted.

A stroke is serious but not inevitable

A stroke can cause paralysis, affect language, memory and vision and cause many other problems. While anyone can have a stroke, nearly 80 percent of strokes are preventable if the patient knows the risk factors and is willing to make the necessary lifestyle changes. Many of the risk factors for a stroke are controllable or treatable, such as high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol and illegal drug use, diabetes, high cholesterol, physical inactivity and obesity.

You can control some risk factors

High blood pressure (or hypertension) is the No. 1 cause of stroke. A reading of more than 120/80 is considered abnormal. A reading of 140/90 or higher is considered hypertension. Smoking nearly doubles the risk for stroke. If you smoke, you should stop. It is never too late to quit. Uncontrollable risk factors include age, race, previous stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA), family history, autoimmune disorders, clotting disorders and congenital defects, such as a hole in the heart. A hole in the heart such as patent foramen ovale (PFO) occurs in approximately one in five Americans. Many do not realize they have a PFO until a medical condition such as stroke occurs.

Know the signs and seek help quickly

Recognizing the symptoms of a stroke quickly is critical in order to obtain effective and appropriate treatment and improve outcome following a stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control, patients arriving at the emergency room within three hours of their first symptoms tend to be healthier three months after a stroke than those whose care was delayed. Sudden symptoms should be acted upon immediately, and include numbness of face, arm or leg; confusion, trouble speaking or comprehending; trouble seeing in one or both eyes; difficulty walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; severe headaches. Treatment that can prevent or reduce permanent damage is available. A clot-busting drug called tissue plasminogen activator can be given to patients who meet certain criteria. It must be given within 4 1/2 hours of when the symptoms began, and the sooner the better.

Don’t wait to call 911

The longer normal blood flow to the brain is disrupted, the greater the damage. Call 911 immediately if you think you or someone you know is having a stroke. Two million brain cells die every minute during a stroke, so every second counts.