The statistics are sobering: Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States experiences a stroke. As the No. 5 cause of death in the U.S., strokes are fatal to almost 130,000 people a year. Equally devastating, stroke is the leading cause of long-term adult disability in the U.S., creating mobility challenges and difficulties performing everyday tasks and activities.
But there is some good news: Studies show that up to 80 percent of strokes may be preventable. May is Stroke Awareness Month, where the American Heart Association, American Stroke Association and National Stroke Association dedicate time to public awareness and education about stroke and how to recognize stroke symptoms, identify risk factors and help reduce the incidence of stroke.
So what is a stroke, exactly? The brain is the body’s “command central,” which controls all aspects of how we function – how we move, how we think, how we talk and understand, how we swallow, how we see, how we behave. A stroke is a “brain attack” and occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is interrupted. This can be due to a clot blocking a blood vessel in the brain, or a ruptured blood vessel within the brain, which causes bleeding. When blood flow to a part of the brain is interrupted, the area of the brain that does not get oxygen can die, and that part of the brain, and the functions it controls, are compromised. The part of the body controlled by the damaged brain does not work as it should.
Stroke Warning Signs
Similar to knowing the signs of a heart attack, you should also know the signs of a stroke. The acronym FAST has been developed to raise awareness about stroke symptoms and how to recognize a stroke as a medical emergency, requiring immediate medical attention and a call to 911.
F is for face – ask the person to smile. Look for an uneven smile, with one side of the mouth drooping.
A is for arm – ask the patient to raise both arms. Look for one arm lagging behind or unable to lift easily.
S is for speech – ask the person to say a simple sentence. Listen for slurred speech or the inability to talk at all.
T is for time – time to call 911 at the first sign.
Stroke symptoms include:
- Sudden weakness or numbness in the arms, legs or the face, especially on one side of the body.
- Sudden balance problems, with difficulty standing, walking or with coordination.
- Sudden confusion, with difficulty speaking or understanding.
- Sudden difficulty seeing in one or both eyes.
- There may be a sudden, severe headache, plus nausea and vomiting.
Studies have shown that most Americans can’t identify the signs of a stroke, and many people are not aware of the need for immediate medical attention. Advances in medical care have made prompt calls to 911 even more important, since there are drugs and procedures to break up or remove clots in the brain or to help control bleeding in the brain. Many of these treatments are time-sensitive and can only be given within specific time frames from the onset of symptoms. Calling 911 at the first signs of stroke can help lessen its disabling effects. It’s important to remember that “time is brain,” and to get help as soon as possible.
Many strokes can be prevented, so it’s important to know which risk factors you can change and manage to help reduce your risk. Treatable stroke risk factors include:
- Managing high blood pressure
- Not smoking
- Controlling high cholesterol
- Weight management
- Getting physical activity
- Managing diabetes to control blood sugar levels
- Managing carotid artery disease
- Treating atrial fibrillation or other heart arrhythmias
There are some risk factors for stroke that can’t be controlled. These include our age, sex, race, hereditary factors and having had a prior stroke. It’s important to talk with your doctor or health care professional to best manage your personal risk factors so you can do all you can to reduce your chance of having a stroke.
Advances in Stroke Rehabilitation
There are almost 7 million stroke survivors in the U.S. While every stroke affects the brain in a unique way, some type of disability and physical limitation are common effects of a stroke. There can be physical challenges, with limb weakness or paralysis, problems with balance, swallowing difficulties and visual changes. There may be challenges with speaking or understanding words and sentences. Writing, reading and math skills may be affected, and there may be changes in thinking skills, in emotions and with behavior since the brain controls all these functions. A stroke survivor may be irritable, forgetful, impulsive, anxious or depressed, and may have difficulty with memory, planning and organizing.
Rehabilitation after a stroke can help with relearning new and safe ways of doing daily activities, as well as recovery of as much independence, mobility, safety and quality of life as possible.
Research has shown that the adult brain has the quality of plasticity – the ability to change and develop new pathways after injury. While much of the work of stroke rehabilitation does focus on improving abilities to do daily activities, technology has taken on a new role in helping the brain to rewire itself. Robotic devices can move a weak limb with hundreds of repetitions – many more than can be provided by one therapist in a treatment session.
Telerehab, with the use of web cameras, can help those who cannot come to a therapy clinic and still allow input from health practitioners. Computer programs can provide voice output with a few keystrokes to help with speech production. Readily available apps assist with memory, math skills and reading. Many technologies, including devices that stimulate weak or paralyzed muscles, have widespread use in stroke rehabilitation. Ongoing research will continue to show which techniques, devices and technologies are most effective in helping the brain heal after a stroke.
The month of May, Stroke Awareness Month, is a great opportunity to learn more about stroke prevention, managing risk factors and identifying signs and symptoms of a stroke. Knowing that stroke is an emergency can help someone get medical assistance quickly, prevent damage to the brain and lessen the devastating effects a stroke can cause.