Why Strokes Happen and How To Spot Them

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds, and every four minutes, a person dies from it. Learning about the signs of a stroke and what to do in an emergency can help you get immediate care for yourself or a loved one.

Why do strokes happen?

The brain needs a constant supply of blood, which carries the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function. A stroke occurs when blood vessels that carry blood to the brain from the heart are either blocked or burst, causing a leak. As a result, part of the brain does not get the blood needed, and the tissue begins to die.

There are three types of strokes. The most common type is an ischemic stroke. It occurs when blood clots or other particles block or narrow the blood vessels to the brain, causing reduced blood flow. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel bursts in the brain, leading to leakage of blood. This can be caused by an array of factors such as trauma to the head and bulges at weak spots in blood vessel walls (aneurysms). Also known as a mini-stroke, a transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a brief interruption of blood flow caused by a clot or debris, often may be a warning sign of a future full-blown stroke. A TIA may only last a few minutes and typically does not cause permanent damage.

What are the symptoms of a stroke?

Men and women often feel similar symptoms of a stroke. Stroke symptoms can appear quickly, making early detection and medical attention imperative to lessen the chances of disability or even death. One helpful acronym to remember what to look for when someone is having a suspected stroke is BE FAST.

  • Balance difficulties and dizziness.
  • Eyesight changes (blurry or double vision).
  • Face drooping or numbness (the smile may look uneven).
  • Arm weakness (when a person lifts both arms at once, one of them may drift downward).
  • Speech difficulty or trouble repeating a sentence.
  • Time to call 911. Call 911 immediately and make note of when the symptoms first appeared.

With every minute being critical, do not drive to the hospital. Call 911 immediately and let the dispatcher know the person has stroke-like symptoms. Stay calm and give CPR if the person does not have a pulse or stops breathing. It is important to remember that you should not give someone with stroke symptoms any medication, food or beverages. Strokes can cause the loss of muscle control in the face and neck, which can increase the risk of choking.

What increases your risk of having a stroke?

Strokes can occur at any age. According to the CDC, in 2009, 34% of people hospitalized for stroke were less than 65 years old. The great news is that stroke can be preventable. Certain behaviors can help reduce one’s overall risk for stroke. Quitting smoking is one of the most important things someone can do to prevent a possible stroke. Smoking doubles the risk of having a stroke. Otherwise, maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle with normal weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels can help immensely.

Seconds matter when stroke-like symptoms are present. Remember to BE FAST and seek immediate medical attention.

Mouhammad Jumaa, MD, is a neurointerventionalist with ProMedica Stroke Network. To learn more about strokes, visit ProMedica’s website.