We know (the basics) about a heart attack, but did you know the brain can also be ‘attacked’? Behnaz Sanjana brings you some grassroots information about strokes, which affect 15 million people worldwide every year.
Sarah was going about her regular chores when she felt one side of her body go weak and numb. She tried to steady herself, but maintaining her balance felt impossible. As the dizziness took over, she plopped down on the floor, her vision blurred. She could faintly hear the panic in her daughter’s voice, but could not fully comprehend what she was being told, or articulate what she was feeling. She felt herself slipping into unconsciousness.
Sarah had just suffered a stroke.
What does this mean?
Strokes affect a significant percentage of men and women the world over. Dr Ram Vatwani, consultant neurologist, tellsus more.
“A stroke is a break to the blood flow in the brain. The function of that part of the brain which experiences insufficient blood flow is affected,” he says.
A stroke is like a heart attack, but in the brain.The heart pumps oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to all parts of the body. This blood is transported via a complex system of blood vessels. When there is a block or a break in a vessel, clean blood does not reach a particular area of the body. When this happens in the brain, it’s called a ‘stroke’.
“There are two broad categories of stroke – haemorrhagic and ischaemic. The first occurs when there is a rupture in a blood vessel of the brain. It is a rare occurrence, but is more likely to be fatal,” warns our expert.
“An ischaemic stroke is more common. It is when a blood clot blocks a vessel in the brain. The clot can be dissolved with medication to restore normal flow.”
Patients can be left with lasting vision problems, seizures, fatigue, loss of speech and memory, and paralysis. A stroke can even be severe enough to cause death
Dr Vatwani draws our attention to what is called a transient ischaemic attack, or TIA. “In this case, the difficulty in speaking and the numbness lasts a very short time, maybe a few minutes only. It can, in fact, also serve as a warning sign to the onset of a full-blown stroke in the future.”
A TIA is also caused by a clot in the brain, but it dissolves on its own and symptoms alleviate in a day. This is generally a precursor to a regular stroke, which can occur a few days or weeks after a TIA. Medical assistance should be promptly sought to avoid the risk of a stroke any time in the future.
How do I know it’s a stroke?
“One must keep in mind the basic symptoms of a stroke – numbness or weakness on one side of the body, hampered speech, loss of consciousness, giddiness, vision problems and memory impairment,” reminds Dr Vatwani.
In both types of stroke, time is of utmost importance. Restoration of blood flow and oxygen to the brain must begin at the earliest moment possible – within a period of four hours.
It is thus imperative for a lay person to figure out whether a person has been affected by a stroke. Remember the catchword FAST. A simple evaluation of the person’s behaviour can save his or her life.
Approximately two million brain cells can die in every minute that the brain does not receive oxygen and nutrients from blood. This results in certain body functions being affected, like walking and talking.
It is important to remember that symptoms of stroke can sometimes be devoid of any pain. That is the reason many victims disregard the warning signs and do not realise the gravity of their situation.
What can I do to keep stroke-safe?
“The cause of a stroke is multifactorial,” says Dr Vatwani. “Smoking is the number one cause. Others factors include high cholesterol. The thick plaque-like substance of cholesterol coats the inside of the arteries, causing them to become narrow. This reduces the flow of blood to the brain. Diabetes also leads to multiple narrowing of the arteries.”
To reduce the likelihood of stroke, the World Health Organsiation recommends a diet high in natural produce and low in salt, along with 30 minutes of exercise five days a week, maintaining a healthy weight and stopping smoking or heavy alcohol consumption. Levels of blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure should be monitored closely.
Treatment and Coping
“Treatment includes anti-platelets like aspirin and plavix, restoring normal blood circulation and hospitalisation for further care. Doctors will also start treating the underlying conditions which may have caused the stroke,” says Dr Vatwani.
Research points out that women who survive a stroke are likely to recover more slowly then men and also experience depression, fatigue, disability and a poorer quality of life.
Recovery from a stroke can vary from patient to patient. Physiotherapy helps to gain control of lost body functions. However, some people take longer than others to start walking, speaking and functioning normally.
During this trying time, patients and their caregivers must maintain a positive outlook and develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle.