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While some of the same things that put you at risk for a heart attack also increase your chance of having a stroke, strokes actually occur when there’s a blockage or bleeding in blood vessels of the brain. “Some people describe it as the worst headache of their life,” says Jennifer Haythe, MD, a cardiologist at Columbia University Medical Center. A headache may not always accompany a stroke, but a sudden “thunderclap” one is a good indication that something is wrong.
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“This can mean more than just slurred speech,” says Haythe. “It can be difficulty finding words, not being able to speak at all, or even confusion and not understanding others speaking.” Also called aphasia, speech problems are evidence of brain damage but they’re not always permanent. If you’re with someone who can’t speak for themselves, call 911 to get them help immediately.
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“Classically, paralysis or the inability move an arm or leg on one side of body is a stroke symptom,” says Haythe. This happens when muscles don’t receive the correct signals from your brain, and it usually occurs on the side of the body opposite of the part of your brain that’s affected.
A person may try to smile and one side of their mouth doesn’t go upward like it should. “Numbness or tingling in the face are also more subtle signs of a stroke,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the NYU Lagone Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health. Some research shows that women may be more likely to exhibit less obvious stroke symptoms and delay care.
Having difficulty walking, feeling dizzy or struggling to stay upright are all red flags for a stroke, says Haythe. There are a number of ways that strokes can impact your balance so don’t just shrug problems off and assume they’ll pass.
Damage to the area of your brain involved with vision can lead to light sensitivity, hallucinations, blurred vision, double vision and even loss of vision. The effects can be temporary or permanent so it’s important to seek help immediately.
If you experience any of the signs above and they seem to go away, that could mean you had a transient ischemic attack or a “ministroke,” which can increase the chance of a larger and more serious stroke happening. “We want people to get the hospital in less than three hours of a stroke’s onset because we can give clot-busting medicine to minimize damage to the brain,” says Goldberg. In this case time isn’t money—it’s a lifesaver.