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Stroke prevention: Know the signs and reduce your risk

| Healthy You

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Here’s how to spot a stroke and what you can do to prevent one.

Blurred vision. Inability to speak. Weakness on one side of the body.

If you have experienced these or seen the same in someone else, you’ve most likely seen a stroke.

Each year, about 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke. That makes it the leading cause of disability in adults and the fifth leading cause of death, according to the American Stroke Association.

“Nearly all of us know someone affected by stroke,” said Elaine Skalabrin, MD, a PeaceHealth physician who specializes in caring for hospital patients with nervous system conditions. She’s also the medical director of PeaceHealth’s stroke center in Springfield, Oregon.

“Strokes happen when blood can’t flow to the brain — either because a clot is in the way or a blood vessel in the brain leaks or bursts,” she said.

Types of stroke

About 85% of strokes are ischemic (pronounced is-key-mick). This is when blood flow to the brain is blocked. 

The rest are hemorrhagic (pronounced hem-OR-agic). This is when a blood vessel in the brain bursts or leaks. Blood rushes in and puts pressure on parts of the brain and limits blood supply.

Blood in brain tissue also sets off inflammation — the body’s natural immune response. That can further damage the brain.

Treatment advances

There’s good news, though. Recent treatment advances are lessening death and disability among people who experience ischemic strokes. Medications can break up clots and make it possible for blood to flow to the brain. And surgeons can remove clots in a procedure called thrombectomy.

Hemorrhagic strokes are more difficult to treat. When someone has this type of stroke, it’s more likely that they’ll have life-altering symptoms. And, in some cases, hemorrhagic strokes are fatal. Researchers in hemorrhagic stroke have yet to discover ways to reduce long-term disability.

Fortunately, both types of stroke can be prevented.

Know your risk factors

One important way to prevent stroke is to keep your blood pressure under 120/80. 

High blood pressure is also called hypertension. And it can run in families. If your parents or others in your family had or have high blood pressure, you might develop, it too. But you can reduce your risk in several ways.

Ask your primary care provider for ways to manage your blood pressure. They can suggest changes such as exercise, diet and medications to help prevent stroke and other long-term health conditions.

High blood pressure isn’t the only thing that can set the stage for a stroke. 

Hemorrhagic stroke can also happen due to blood vessel conditions, bleeding disorders, aneurysms (ballooning of blood vessels in the brain) or use of illegal drugs. Some communities have seen more people with bleeding in the brain due to methamphetamine use.

To prevent stroke:

  • Manage your blood pressure (aim for under 120/80). 
  • Get or stay physically active.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat nutritious foods. Aim for less than 1 teaspoon of salt a day.
  • Only use drugs prescribed by your healthcare provider. 
  • Avoid smoking or using tobacco. If you do smoke, try to quit.
  • Limit alcohol.

Similar symptoms

Signs of both types of stroke can include suddenly feeling numb or weak on one side of the body, or changes in your vision or speech. 

Symptoms of hemorrhagic stroke may also include severe headache, nausea or vomiting, and some people may rapidly lose consciousness. With this type of stroke, you need a CAT scan of the brain to see if there is bleeding.

Know the signs

Everyone should know how to recognize stroke symptoms. Why? Because the person who’s having a stroke might not know it — or be able to do anything about it themselves, said Dr. Skalabrin.“It’s family members, friends or bystanders who must call 911.”

Use the simple acronym BE FAST to remember the signs of stroke and what to do.

Look for sudden changes in:

  • Balance – loss of balance or weakness on one side.
  • Eyesight – blur or loss of vision.
  • Face – drooping on one side.
  • Arm – weakness or drooping on one side.
  • Speech – inability to speak or slurred words.

T stands for Time — call 911 quickly. Stroke is an emergency!

Ask your family and friends about their experience with stroke. And encourage others to share. Your simple conversations might save a life.

PeaceHealth has expert providers in stroke care. Find us in:

portrait of Elaine J. Skalabrin MD

Elaine J. Skalabrin MD

General Neurology
Vascular Neurology

Elaine J. Skalabrin MD practices Vascular Neurology in Springfield.