hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

June 6, 2013

What you need to know about stroke

By Alexander Matolcsy
MD

---- — :Editor’s note: The Gazette occasionally publishes columns by local doctors and other medical professionals. This is one of them.

When it comes to a medical emergency like stroke, the clock is ticking. Time is critical to intervene, so you must act quickly and call 911 to get to the nearest emergency department.

This month is National Stroke Awareness Month. During this annual observance, health care facilities and professionals aim to spread awareness of stroke and educate people about stroke risks, signs and symptoms of a stroke, and what they should do if they think they or a loved one may be experiencing a stroke.

In order to understand the above, you need to understand the true definition of a stroke. People sometimes think of a stroke as being associated with the heart — similar to a heart attack. However, a stroke is a medical condition where there is a lack of blood supply to specific areas of the brain.

There are two main types of strokes: Ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are due to a blockage of an artery, either through a blood clot from another part of the body or from deposit buildup within the vessel. Hemorrhagic strokes are caused by a ruptured blood vessel, resulting in bleeding within the brain itself.

Strokes affect thousands of people every year. While anyone can have a stroke, some groups are at a higher risk. They include:

The elderly

Males

African Americans

People with high blood pressure or high cholesterol

Smokers

People with a high level of alcohol consumption

People who are obese

People who are physically inactive

People with conditions such as atrial fibrillation and atherosclerosis

Some of these are modifiable risk factors. In addition to quitting smoking, increasing your physical activity, and limiting alcohol consumption, eating healthy (low-fat/low salt foods, whole grains, fruits, vegetables) can also lower your risk for stroke.

The most common symptoms of a stroke include:

Sudden onset of weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially in one side of the body

Sudden onset of a severe headache

Sudden onset of difficulty seeing in one or both eyes

Sudden onset of dizziness or loss of balance

Sudden confusion or difficulty speaking or understanding

The FAST method is a great tool to help detect symptoms of stroke and gauge the responsiveness of stroke victims.

F — Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

A — Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

S — Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

T — Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

Once again, time is critical, since a stroke means brain cells are not receiving blood supply (and therefore oxygen). This means death of brain tissue, which can result in permanent damage.

It is important to learn the multiple warning signs of a stroke, then act FAST and call 911 immediately to get the patient to the nearest emergency department.

Alexander Matolcsy, MD, FACEP, is chief of emergency services at Merrimack Valley Hospital.