Recognize a stroke’s warning signs

September 30, 2004

By Dr. Norman K. Brown
UTU Medical Consultant

Most of us would agree that we should do all we can to preserve and protect the working of our brains, the part of us that makes us who we are and different from each other.

Aside from head injuries, the most common damage to our brain comes from circulation difficulties. These difficulties can occur from too little blood flowing to one area of the brain because of a clot in the blood vessel, or too much blood flowing to one place because of a sudden blood vessel leak, or hemorrhage. Both are commonly referred to as “strokes.”

There are steps each of us can and should be taking to reduce the chances of our having either of these types of strokes.

A cholesterol deposit in a brain artery triggers the most common clot-type injury. So, just as we can watch our diets (weight), engage in exercise, reduce or eliminate smoking, and control blood pressure and diabetes to protect our hearts, there are programs to protect our brain’s blood vessels.

It is always difficult to start and to stick to such programs, but your doctor will always be pleased to try to help you. Medications for both cholesterol reduction and blood pressure control are available to bolster your efforts. These medications have advanced greatly in effectiveness over the past 20 years.

The occurrence of the hemorrhagic or bleeding type of stroke, which is less common, is also reduced by attention to “blood vessel/heart healthy” programs — such as control of blood pressure.

Once the possibility of a stroke is present, there are some newer techniques for treating strokes that give us new hope — in particular, medications or lasers that help break up or dissolve blood clots and even devices such as snares and blades that are being developed to attempt removal of clot material. These last methods are still experimental, but for some people the results have been encouraging. In all cases, the time from the onset of symptoms to when treatment begins is extremely important.

When I say the sooner the better, I am talking about three to six hours maximum after the first symptoms. Former President Bill Clinton saved his own life by not waiting too long in the presence of symptoms of potential heart-muscle damage.

Let’s review some of the symptoms of early or threatened strokes:

  • Sudden onset of weakness or clumsiness or numbness in an arm and/or leg, usually without pain;
  • Walking or balance problems;
  • Speech difficulty;
  • Sudden vision loss;
  • Sudden onset of very severe headaches.

If any of these happen to you or a loved one, please seek medical help immediately.

Your health will always be way ahead if you think prevention because protecting your heart and the blood vessels throughout your body will help you to a longer, healthier life.