According to the American Stroke Association, a stroke strikes someone in the United States every 40 seconds. Stroke is the nation’s fifth leading cause of death and a leading cause of serious, long-term disability.
Despite the grim statistics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that up to 80 percent of strokes are preventable.
Vance McCollom, a neuro-interventional radiologist with Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City, says 85 percent of strokes are ischemic and characterized by numbness, weakness, slurred speech, clumsiness and double vision. Fifteen percent are hemorrhagic and may feel “like you have the headache of your life.”
When a stroke happens, every second counts. The American Stroke Association reports that 2 million brain cells die every minute during a stroke, increasing the risk of permanent brain damage, disability or death. Experts say learning the critical signs of a stroke with the acronym FAST – face drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulty and time to call 911 – can help save a life.
“Time is brain,” McCollom says. “The earlier you receive treatment, the more brain can be saved and the better your outcomes.”
Dr. Larry Shepherd, medical director of the Saint Francis Stroke Program in Tulsa, adds: “Common causes of ischemic stroke are atrial fibrillation – an irregular beating of the heart that can lead to blood clot formation that can dislodge and travel to an artery within the brain and block oxygen to that part of the brain, causing cell death [a stroke]. The most common cause of hemorrhagic stroke [rupture of an artery within the brain] is uncontrolled hypertension.”
The potential for disabilities afterward depends on the location and size of the stroke within the brain.
“The most devastating … are loss of motor function or the inability to use the arms or legs, loss of speech or swallowing, and loss of vision,” Shepherd says.
While most strokes are unexpected, 15 percent of victims experience a transient ischemic attack (TIA) beforehand.
“A TIA is considered a warning sign of stroke,” Shepherd says. “It manifests as stroke symptoms that resolve [themselves]. When we look at the MRI of the brain, it does not show any signs of stroke or cell death. This should prompt [an] evaluation of stroke risks, such as a reason for abnormal blood clot formation that would lead to a stroke.”
He says stroke prevention includes managing risks, such as quitting smoking, limiting alcohol intake, controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, limiting fat intake and participating in regular aerobic exercise.
As for coping with disabilities caused by a stroke, McCollom says, “Inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation are very helpful in getting both types of stroke patients back to their best performance – and this service is started as soon as possible after the event.”
He says when left untreated, only 10 percent of patients get better after a stroke.
“However, with treatment, we are seeing patients return back to living with minimal to no disability 55 percent of the time.