When you or someone you love is having a stroke or experiencing stroke symptoms, every moment counts. For one, time is brain. Strokes occur either when a blood clot blocks an artery or when a blood vessel breaks, which interrupts blood flow. This means that the brain is no longer getting blood and oxygen. The longer it takes to get treatment, the greater the risk for long-term damage. Secondly, some stroke treatments have a narrow time window during which they can be administered. According to the National Stroke Association, the majority of patients don't report to the emergency room until more than 24 hours after the onset of stroke symptoms. It’s important to remember that the longer a stroke patient waits to get medical help, the greater the likelihood of permanent disability.
Blount Memorial stroke medical director Dr. Deaver Shattuck says there are specific stroke symptoms to look out for. “One of the classic stroke symptoms is sudden numbness or weakness of their face, arm or leg, particularly on one side of the body,” Shattuck said. “Sudden confusion, or trouble speaking or understanding also may occur, as well as sudden vision problems in one or both eyes. A person having a stroke may also experience sudden trouble walking, with dizziness or loss of coordination or balance. Sudden severe headaches with no known cause also can indicate that a stroke is taking place,” he explained.
“Because time is such a factor in stroke care, it’s important to be able to spot these symptoms when they occur,” Shattuck continued. “A quick, easy way to remember them is with the ‘F.A.S.T’ test. Ask the person to smile to see if one side of his or her face droops. Next, ask the person to raise both arms to see if one arm drifts downward. Third, ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, looking for signs of slurred speech or issues remembering the words. Finally, since time is critical, if the person is exhibiting any of these symptoms, get him or her to the hospital immediately. Face, arms, speech and time – F.A.S.T.,” he said.
Shattuck says there are several different types of stroke a person can experience. “In some cases, a stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, while others are the result of a bleed into the brain,” he said. “Bleeding into the tissue of the brain is far less common and typically occurs if you have an aneurysm or a tumor. You can also have a stroke where you’re losing oxygen to the brain and then the vessel bursts, which can result in bleeding into the brain. Unfortunately, those are the strokes you can do very little about and are much more dangerous. In some cases, the blood can be drained off through neurosurgery. Usually though, all you can do is support the patient and hope that they get better,” he explained. “Strokes that involve bleeding into the brain are much more deadly and can result in more disabilities for those patients, mostly because there just aren’t many effective therapies for them,” he added.
“You also can have a stroke in which the arteries in your brain harden and narrow to the point that you develop a blood clot,” Shattuck continued. “In these cases, we can administer TPA (tissue plasminogen activator) or the clot-buster drug, break up the clot and save brain tissue,” he said. “You also have what are known as embolic strokes, where you have a clot in another part of your body, typically in the heart or in the carotid arteries, which moves up into the brain. When a piece of that blood clot wedges into a smaller artery into the brain, it deprives the brain of the oxygen and that part of the brain begins to die,” he explained. “This also can be treated with TPA,” he added.
“A mini stroke is when you had an area of brain that was deprived of oxygen for a period of time, but that got better quickly,” Shattuck said. “Maybe the vessel was not 100 percent blocked, but was only partially blocked. This is similar to having chest pains that don’t necessarily result in a heart attack. With mini strokes, symptoms tend to disappear in under 24 hours without intervention,” he added.
Still, because you cannot immediately tell which type of stroke you’re having, the message remains the same – seek help immediately. “If we have a patient experiencing stroke-like symptoms and they’re inside the window of time to administer TPA, we’re going to do that,” Shattuck said. “You only know for sure you’ve had a mini stroke after the fact, so it is crucial to call 911 or get to the Blount Memorial emergency department as quickly as possible,” he added.