Could You Spot the Signs of a Stroke?

Strokes tend to come on quickly and need immediate medical treatment. Here's how to spot the signs of a stroke as it's happening, and what to do if you are experiencing symptoms.

By Matt Hrodey
Jun 5, 2023 1:00 PMJun 5, 2023 1:49 PM
Stroke brain
Strokes come in many sizes, from the silent to the massive and life-changing. (Credit: crystal light/Shutterstock)


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Strokes primarily impact the aged, but they can also strike the young, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One in seven affect people between the ages of 15 and 49.

The agency recounts the case of Brooke Bergfeld of Bismark, North Dakota, a 29-year-old mom who suffered a stroke not long after giving birth to her son, Hudson. Bergefeld reported many common symptoms, including a terrible headache, a pain in her arm, slurred speech and a drooping face.

She was later diagnosed with fibromuscular dysplasia, a condition that narrowed her blood vessels and made the stroke more likely. There are many other such conditions – including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and vascular disease – that increase the risk of stroke.

To prevent lasting damage to the brain, swift treatment is paramount, as is spotting warning signs early and calling 911.

What Is a Stroke?

Your brain cells require a steady supply of oxygen to stay in business, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center, as they maintain only minor reserves of energy. But what happens when the brain’s vital oxygen supply is interrupted?

The medical term for this condition is a stroke, an emergency capable of inflicting lasting damage – and lasting consequences – on the brain.

What Are the Signs of Stroke?

The human brain is the most complex organ on the planet, and the signs of its dysfunction are manifold. That said, the CDC and other experts refer to a core cluster of symptoms which come on suddenly:

  • Numbness affecting one or both sides of the body

  • Confusion or difficulty speaking

  • Trouble with vision, affecting one or two eyes

  • Trouble with walking or loss of coordination

  • A severe headache that can't be explained, or dizziness

Other possible symptoms include intense vertigo, nausea, vomiting, neck stiffening, personality changes, memory loss and fainting.

What Causes Strokes?

The causes of strokes are best explained by the type of stroke one experiences.

  • Ischemic Strokes

The majority of strokes, called “ischemic strokes,” happen when something blocks a blood vessel that feeds the brain, such as a fatty deposit (think atherosclerosis buildup) or a blood clot.

  • Hemorrhagic Strokes

Another major category, called “hemorrhagic strokes,” occurs when a weakened blood vessel rips open and releases blood into the brain. This is most commonly caused by untreated high blood pressure, and the blood may spill into either the inside of the brain or the space between the brain and its subarachnoid covering.

  • Mini-strokes

Mini-strokes, or “transient ischemic attacks,” last minutes or hours but are caused by a blockage just like full ischemic strokes. They also require immediate medical attention.

  • Cryptogenic Strokes

A surprising number of strokes, called “cryptogenic strokes,” are never explained. According to estimates, something like 1 in 3 ischemic strokes end up in this category. Patients receive treatment, but doctors can never point to a specific blockage or blood vessel.

  • Silent Stroke

More technically known as a “silent infarct,” these pass by without symptoms but leave behind a small area of damage in the brain. Despite lacking in initial fanfare, silent strokes can still affect mental and physical functioning long-term.

They’re wildly common and estimated to outnumber “regular” strokes 10-to-one. Old age increases the risk of having them, along with a history of smoking or vascular disease.

What Does a Stroke Feel Like?

While stroke symptoms can cause intense fear and confusion, they don’t generally inflict pain, except for a possible headache. These “thunderclap” headaches come on quickly and are often described as the worst a person has ever experienced.

If the pain centers on the forehead, that may indicate a blockage in the carotid artery in the neck. If the discomfort centers on the back of the head, that points to a potential blockage in the important vertebrobasilar system, which feeds the vision and balance systems.

What To Do if Someone Is Having a Stroke

To determine whether to call 911, the CDC has developed an acronym (FAST) to refer to in emergencies:

  • Face – The person’s face droops when trying to smile.

  • Arms – When the person lifts both arms, one drifts down.

  • Speech – The person’s speech comes out slurred or strange.

  • Time – If you see any of these signs, it’s time to call 911.

Don’t drive someone experiencing stroke symptoms to the hospital. Call on your local paramedics, who can administer brain-saving medications more quickly.

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