Stroke Awareness Month: The Signs and Symptoms

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By Mia Brabham

Sponsored by Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center

May is Stroke Awareness Month, and it is definitely worth talking about the signs, symptoms, and risks when it comes to stroke.

Every minute counts when a stroke happens, because time lost is brain lost. According to the CDC, treatments are most effective when a stroke is recognized and diagnosed within three hours. Knowing the signs and getting treated fast can reduce brain damage and increase the chances of survival and recovery.

A few years ago, Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center started a program with the Prince William County EMS so stroke patients can begin treatment on their way to the hospital. The program has flourished and treated hundreds around Prince William County.

Andrea Helmbach is the Stroke Program Manager and Manager of Patient Care Services at Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center. In honor of Stroke Awareness Month, she has taken time to share the signs, symptoms, prevention methods, and treatment for strokes because “Time is Brain.”

PWL: What is a stroke?

AH: A stroke occurs when blood supply to a portion of the brain is interrupted or reduced. This deprives the brain of oxygen and the nutrients that are needed to function. Areas beyond the area of blocked or reduced flow begin to die very quickly.

There are two types of strokes: the most common is ischemic, which occurs 87% of the time. This is when a vessel supplying blood to the brain is obstructed. The less common (approximately 13%) is a hemorrhagic stroke which is caused by a ruptured blood vessel in the brain.

PWL: What are the signs and symptoms of a stroke?

AH: We use the “BE FAST” acronym to help people remember. Abrupt onset of any of the following:

  • B = Balance (loss of), dizziness
  • E = Eyesight (Change in vision in one or both eyes; may be partial vision field)
  • F = Facial droop
  • A = Arm (Hold both arms out straight; does one drift?)
  • S = Speech (Slurring of words, wrong word choices for common items, inability to speak)
  • T = Time (Know the last time the person [seemed]normal, don’t wait; call 911!)

Also, an abrupt change in sensation, such as numbness on one side of the face/arm, can be a subtle sign of a stroke.

PWL: Is there a group of people (age, gender, race) that are more likely to suffer a stroke? 

AH:  This is somewhat regional, but overall:

  • Age increases your chances of a stroke. According to a Johns Hopkins study, for each decade of life after 55, the chance of stroke doubles for each decade.
  • African Americans are at higher risk, partially because of higher incidence of high blood pressure.
  • Gender matters: men are more likely to have a stroke, but more women die from their stroke.
  • People with prior history of stroke [have a]higher risk of having a second stroke.
  • Heredity: [there is]increased chance of stroke in people who have a first generation relative who has had a stroke.

PWL: Can strokes be prevented?

AH: Up to 80% of strokes can be prevented! Controlling the “controllable” risk factors greatly reduces the risk! The “controllable” risk factors are those that are related to lifestyle factors, such as:

  • High Blood Pressure
  • Smoking/Vaping
  • Diabetes
  • High Cholesterol Levels
  • Excessive Alcohol Consumption
  • Diet high in fat (particularly saturated) and salt, but low in fiber, fruit and vegetables
  • Sedentary lifestyle, lack of regular exercise
  • Obesity

The good news is subtle changes to these factors can benefit your heart health!

PWL: How are strokes treated?

AH: Treatment depends on a couple of things: the size of the vessel obstructed (severity of symptoms) and the time the person was last seen well. Therefore, it is so important to call 911 and get help fast!

Early treatment for patients may include the medication Alteplase. Many know it as the “clot busting” drug. It must be taken within 4.5 hours of last seen “wellness.” Other treatments may be interventional, such as a mechanical thrombectomy where the Interventional MD inserts a catheter into the wrist or groin and manually retrieves/removes the clot to allow revascularization. This is done when a large vessel is occluded, and can be done up to 24 hours of the last known “well time” when certain criteria has been met.

Other treatment for ischemic stroke includes medical management of hypertension, control of diabetes, and may include medications such as statins to control hyperlipidemia. The team spends time educating the patient on the risk factors to change lifestyle and prevent future strokes. We also have rehab services that begin therapy early to improve neuroplasticity (the ability of the neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization). Treatment for hemorrhagic strokes is dependent on size and location of the bleeding. The focus is on controlling the bleeding.

PWL: What is Sentara’s Stroke Awareness program, and how does it help the community?

 AH: Sentara’s Stroke Awareness Program is our Community Education Outreach to educate the community on strokes, signs, and symptoms of a stroke and what to do if you witness someone with these symptoms. We like to say, “Time is Brain” because for every minute in delay of care, we lose 1.9 million neurons. Don’t delay, call 911! We also like to focus on lifestyle management, disease management, and preventing strokes. Our community benefits by faster activation of the EMS system – quicker interventions which lead to better outcomes and reduced disabilities.

PWL: Anything else we should know about strokes and stroke awareness?

 AH: Our population of stroke patients has seen a reduction in age… over the last few years. We need to focus on healthy lifestyles with our younger populations to hardwire these habits which will ultimately reduce their stroke risks later in life.

If you or you witness someone with the signs and symptoms of stroke, call 911! Time is Brain.

 Mia Brabham is an author, writer, and media host. Her debut book, Note to Self, is a short collection of life lessons that is the hands of readers all over the world. Mia is also the host of Two In The Morning, a podcast that explores and unpacks the cultural questions that keep us up at night. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter, or at bymiabrabham.com.

 

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