What are the signs I’m having a stroke?

One of the signs: Facial weakness can indicate a stroke. Has the mouth drooped?

One of the signs: Facial weakness can indicate a stroke. Has the mouth drooped?

One of Australia’s leading causes of death and disability, stroke kills more men than prostate cancer and more women than breast cancer, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has found. 

In 2017, there were over 56,000 strokes in Australia – that’s one stroke every nine minutes, according to Deloitte Economics’ findings for the Stroke Foundation. 470,000 Australians are living with disability caused by stroke, a financial cost estimated at five billion dollars annually, the report said.

What happens when you have a stroke?

Stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted.

“Blood may stop moving through an artery because it is blocked (an ischaemic stroke) or if the artery bursts (a haemorrhagic stroke),” GP Dr Jill Gamberg of Double Bay Doctors said.

“When brain cells do not get enough oxygen and nutrients, they die, [some shortly] after the stroke starts, but others can last hours if the blood supply is not cut off completely.”

Warning signs of a stroke

The FAST test is an easy way to remember and recognise the most common signs of stroke:

  • Facial weakness – check the face. Has the mouth drooped?
  • Arm weakness – can both arms lift?
  • Speech difficulty – is speech slurred?
  • Time – is critical.  

“If you suddenly experience, [or see someone with these signs], call an ambulance immediately,” Gamberg said. “The longer a stroke remains untreated, the greater the chance of brain damage.

[Immediate] emergency medical treatment improves the chance of survival and successful rehabilitation.”

Other potential signs of a stroke are change in sensation, leg weakness, loss of balance, visual disturbance, difficulty understanding, difficulty swallowing, and headache.

“The signs may occur alone or [simultaneously], can last seconds or hours, persist or disappear,” Gamberg said. “[If the signs or symptoms] disappear within 24 hours, [this] may be a transient ischaemic attack, a mini-stroke.”

Effects of stroke

“Each survivor will face different problems, depending on [the nature of the stroke],” Gamberg said.

A stroke on the right side of the brain tends to cause problems on the left side of the body; a stroke on the left side of the brain causes problems on the right side.

“Often the effects of a small stroke can be rehabilitated, and the person can [return to an almost normal] life.” Intensive treatment from speech, occupational and physiotherapists can improve a stroke survivor’s quality of life – “but in [serious] cases, disabilities ranging from an inability to walk to an inability to communicate can be severe and permanent.”

Prevention

Stroke risk factors like age, family history and gender cannot be controlled, but alongside a healthy diet and “essential” exercise, there are numerous lifestyle factors you can make to reduce stroke risk, Gamberg said:

  • Manage your blood pressure, keeping it in a low risk range 
  • Quit smoking
  • Lower your cholesterol and prevent diabetes with a healthy diet and lifestyle; if you are diabetic, manage your condition carefully 
  • Decrease or stop alcohol consumption
  • Stay in, or achieve a healthy weight range
  • Decrease salt intake

“[Also,] see your doctor if you suspect you have an irregular heartbeat. This might indicate atrial fibrillation, a risk factor for stroke, “but can be manageable and treatable.”

Strokes can be prevented in up to 80 percent of cases, a 2016 study in The Lancet found.

“So talk to your doctor about managing your risk factors and making healthy lifestyle changes,” Gamberg said.

  • For more information visit Healthshare, a joint venture with Fairfax to improve the health of regional Australians. Or you can find a specialist near you using the health tool below.