6 Signs of a Stroke You Might Be Ignoring
Stroke is the fifth-leading cause of death nationwide. Brain damage from strokes can be minimized if they are treated promptly, but it’s common to mistake signs of a stroke for other health problems, which delays treatment.
Don’t brush off these symptoms
In each minute of a stroke, your brain loses an estimated 1.9 million neurons. Each hour a stroke goes untreated ages your brain the equivalent of just over three and a half years. The longer a stroke lasts or a patient doesn’t receive treatment, the greater the chance of lingering speech difficulties, memory loss, or behavioral changes. The earlier a stroke is caught, the better the treatment options, which can minimize damage and improve the odds of a fuller recovery. That’s why knowing the telltale signs of a stroke is crucial.
“Stroke is scary. Denial is the biggest factor in delaying treatment. When I ask stroke patients in the ER why they waited to call 911, the most common response is that they wanted to see if it would go away,” says neurologist Carolyn Brockington, MD, of the Mount Sinai Stroke Center in New York City, and assistant professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
There are two kinds of stroke. An ischemic stroke means blocked blood vessels cause a reduction in blood flow in the brain. A hemorrhagic stroke means a ruptured blood vessel is leaking blood in the brain. Symptoms for both kinds of stroke can be the same. It’s important to call 911 as soon as you notice any signs of a stroke.
You think exhaustion is making you see double
Vision problems like seeing double, blurriness or loss of sight in one eye can be signs of a stroke, but many people blame this on old age or tiredness. “Seeing two images is very unusual for just being tired or reading too much,” Dr. Brockington says. A blocked blood vessel can reduce the amount of oxygen getting to the eye, which causes vision issues that may not be accompanied by any other signs of stroke. Vision issues can be a problem with one or both eyes, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
You think your arm is numb because it “just fell asleep”
If you wake up from a nap and your arm or leg is numb, it’s easy to assume it’s due to a compressed nerve. “Don’t feel like a hypochondriac. If your arm is suddenly numb or weak, and it doesn’t go away in a few minutes, call 911,” says Ralph Sacco, MD, professor of neurology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Decreased blood flow through the arteries runs up your neck to your brain, and either the arteries to the front or back of your head can cause numbness and/or weakness on one side of the body. That symptom can also be caused by a stroke of small arteries in the brain, or by bleeds too. (That was the last sign before this 24-year-old realized she was having a stroke.)
You blame slurred speech on your medications
“Some medicines, like painkillers, can cause slurred speech and people often chalk up speech issues to their drugs as opposed to stroke,” says Dr. Sacco. But if that’s not a side effect you usually experience, you might be having a stroke and should seek help immediately, he says. One of the silent signs of a stroke is when your face is asymmetrical. This is often referred to as a stroke face droop.
You assume alcohol is behind your wobbliness
“People think they’re having balance issues because they had a drink, but see if that makes sense,” says Dr. Brockington. “You won’t have delayed balance problems, so a drink from earlier in the day probably isn’t to blame. It could be from a decrease in blood flow to the brain.” If you suddenly start to stumble, can’t walk straight, or experience sudden dizziness, don’t wait for it to pass; call 911 right away.
You think that “it’s on the tip of my tongue” feeling is due to being tired
When people have trouble thinking of the right words or lose their train of thought, they figure they’re tired or foggy, says Dr. Brockington. But sudden cognitive deficits are common signs of a stroke. “You might struggle to think of a word every once in a while, but there shouldn’t be a long period of time where you can’t think of anything to say or be unable to speak,” says Dr. Brockington.
Sudden confusion or difficulty understanding others can be a common symptom of stroke, says the CDC. In some cases, stroke patients won’t be aware that anything is wrong, so people around them should raise the alarm. “The part of the brain that isn’t working well impairs the stroke patient’s perception and the ability to think,” says Dr. Sacco.
You chalk that blinding headache up to a migraine
It might just be a migraine, but if you’re not prone to them, it could be a stroke. “Migraine headaches can masquerade as a stroke because they have the same neurological symptoms,” says Dr. Sacco. “I tell people to treat it like a stroke and call for help; let us figure it out.” According to a study in Nature Reviews Neurology, if you regularly have migraines with auras, your chance of stroke increases.
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- Carolyn Brockington, MD, neurologist, Mount Sinai Stroke Center in New York City and assistant professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
- MedlinePlus: “Ischemic Stroke”
- MedlinePlus: “Hemorrhagic Stroke”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Know the Facts About Stroke”
- Ralph Sacco, MD, professor of neurology at University of Miami North School of Medicine
- American Stroke Association: “Stroke Symptoms”
- Nature Reviews Neurology: “Migraine with aura increases the risk of stroke”