Here’s how to spot them and what to do.
Most people think that a stroke simply appears out of the blue, with no prior warning. But is that always true?
Although you may not always be able to predict that someone is about to have a stroke, sometimes there are warning signs that may occur before a stroke happens. Being able to recognize these impending signs of stroke may make it more likely that you can prevent a stroke, or at least recognize when one is occurring right away. That’s important because getting immediate medical attention can make a big difference in recovery after a stroke.
"Our latest data show that for large and potentially devastating strokes, early intervention can increase the likelihood for recovery,” said Dr. Peter Masny, a neurologist with Dignity Health’s Fair Oaks Specialty Center in Arroyo Grande. “We have seen that in our local hospitals as well. Patients who presented with large strokes within the first hours were able to receive rapid treatment and we have seen some great recoveries. The earlier the better."
Warning Signs Before a Stroke Occurs
Not everyone has symptoms before a stroke happens, but in some cases, you may notice signs.
A TIA. A transient ischemic attack, called a TIA or mini-stroke, occurs when blood supply to part of the brain is briefly interrupted. Symptoms resemble a stroke but usually stop quickly and don’t cause permanent damage. It is estimated that about one-third of people who have a TIA will have a more severe stroke in the future. If you have a TIA, don’t ignore it just because symptoms go away quickly. See a doctor because it is a sign that there is an underlying problem that may result in a stroke.
“People who had a TIA should get an immediate workup for this,” Dr. Masny said. “If someone had new symptoms convincing for a TIA, then going to the ED would be appropriate.”
A severe or new type of headache. Not everyone gets a headache before a stroke, but if you have a severe headache, or one that is different from headaches you usually have, it may be a sign of an impending stroke.
One study found that 15 percent of participants who had an ischemic stroke (a stroke caused by a blockage in a blood vessel in the brain) had an unusual headache that started within 7 days of the stroke and typically lasted until the stroke occurred. These headaches were more likely to occur in people who had atrial fibrillation. If you have an unusually severe headache that doesn’t go away, see a doctor.
Warning Signs of a Stroke
Getting medical treatment as quickly as possible after a stroke occurs can make a big difference in recovery from stroke. The most effective treatments must be administered within 3 hours of when symptoms begin. That’s why it’s so important to be able to recognize the signs of a stroke.
These are the most common signs of stroke. Symptoms usually come on suddenly.
- Numbness or weakness in the face, arm or leg (especially on only one side)
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes
- Dizziness, balance problems or trouble walking
- Severe headache with no known cause
If you think someone may be having a stroke, ask them to do these 3 things:
- Ask them to smile. You may notice one side of their face droops.
- Ask them to raise both of their arms. You may notice one arm drifting downward.
- Ask them to repeat a simple sentence. You may notice their speech is slurred or doesn’t make sense.
What to Do If You Suspect a Stroke
If you notice any of these signs of stroke in someone, call 911 immediately. There is no time to waste. By calling an ambulance rather than driving the person to the hospital, medical personnel can begin life-saving treatment right away. Also make a note of when symptoms first started because the timing of stroke onset may be very important in deciding what types of treatment are available.
Dignity Health Central Coast Neuroscience Services’ team of neurosurgeons provides general and specialized neurosurgical care for treatment of brain and nervous system disorders. Learn more at dignityhealth.org/central-coast/medical-group/phc
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Date Last Reviewed: August 17, 2023
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD