Sometimes called a “brain attack,” a stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, either when a blood clot blocks a vessel (ischemic stroke) or when a vessel weakens or bursts (hemorrhagic stroke). Brief interruptions in blood flow, known as transient ischemic attacks (also known as ministrokes), can mimic stroke symptoms.
When blood flow is interrupted, brain cells don’t receive enough oxygen and begin to die. Depending on what part of the brain is damaged, a stroke can cause problems with:
- Muscle control
- Other functions
According to the National Stroke Association, an estimated 800,000 people experience a stroke every year. The problem is the leading cause of disability in American adults and the fifth leading cause of death in the country.
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Fortunately, ischemic strokes — the most common type of stroke — respond to immediate treatment with a drug called IV-tPA, which can dissolve blood clots that block blood flow to the brain. Research has shown that some patients who were treated with IV-tPA within three hours of developing stroke symptoms were at least 30 percent more likely to recover with little or no disability, compared to those who didn’t receive this drug. Because IV-tPA must be administered as soon as possible, it’s imperative that you seek immediate medical attention if you think you or a loved one is having a stroke.
Yet women are much less likely to receive this crucial treatment, possibly because they often experience different stroke symptoms than men. The latter tend to exhibit more “classic” symptoms. Here’s the difference:
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Classic Stroke Symptoms
- Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, particularly on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion or difficulty speaking or understanding speech
- Sudden difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Other Stroke Symptoms
Although those are the symptoms that most people commonly experience, research has shown women are 33 percent less likely to report such “classic” stroke symptoms when they arrive at the emergency room than their male counterparts. Some people — and women in particular — are more apt to experience other, vague symptoms that could signal a stroke. These include:
- Lightheadedness, fainting, or loss of consciousness
- Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
- General weakness
- Confusion, unresponsiveness, or disorientation
- Sudden behavioral changes
- Nausea or vomiting
Because such symptoms are often associated with other problems, people who exhibit them may not be aware that they are experiencing a stroke. If you think that you or a loved one are having a stroke, call 911 immediately.
Contact the UPMC Stroke Institute to schedule an appointment or ask a question at 412-232-8840.
The UPMC Department of Neurosurgery is the largest academic neurosurgical provider in the United States. We perform more than 11,000 procedures each year. We treat conditions of the brain, skull base, spine, and nerves, including the most complex disorders. Whether your condition requires surgery or not, we strive to provide the most advanced, complete care possible. Our surgeons are developing new techniques and tools, including minimally invasive treatments. U.S. News & World Report ranks neurology and neurosurgery at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as among the best in the country. We also rank among the top neurosurgery departments in the U.S. for National Institutes of Health funding, a benchmark in research excellence.