How Do You Know If You're Having a Stroke?

It doesn't seem to be as greatly feared by many of us as cancer and heart attacks. Yet stroke is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and the largest cause of disability in adults, according to the American Stroke Association.

When a blood vessel ferrying oxygen or nutrients to the brain either bursts or is blocked, a stroke results--and the brain tissue in that area, since it's not getting nourishment, starts to die.

If you're aware of stroke symptoms and get medical help fast, you've got a higher chance of survival than someone who's not lucky enough to get medical attention.

"It's very important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of stroke," says Elsa Grace Giardina, MD, cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia Medical Center in New York City. "If you're having symptoms, it's crucial to immediately get to a center where you can be treated."

Your best chance of surviving a stroke is prompt treatment, says Roger Bonomo, MD, director of stroke care at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.  "But if you think you're having a stroke, don't go to the hospital," he says. "Call 911."

There are two kinds of strokes: an ischemic stroke, in which a clot blocks the blood flow to the brain, and a hemorrhagic stroke, in which a blood vessel bursts and blood no longer flows to the brain. Hemorrhagic strokes tend to occur more often in young people, Giardina says. Either can have devastating consequences.

When should you worry about stroke? Here are the top symptoms to look out for:

  • If you are having trouble speaking, this could signal a stroke. If you're by yourself, dial 911 and try to say the word "stroke." If you're home and with others, indicate that you are having trouble talking. "There could be changes in your speech or difficulty finding the words for things," Bonomo says. "Your speech is not as clear as it usually is."
  • Numbness or weakness on one side of the body, your face and arm, for instance, can signal a stroke, Bonomo says.
  • A severe headache with no known cause is a cardinal symptom of stroke.
  • More subtle stroke symptoms include the sudden onset of nausea, heart palpitations, or even a sudden case of the hiccups, Giardina says.
  • Being suddenly confused and having trouble understanding what others are saying.
  • Having sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Having sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or coordination.
  • If you're with someone who you think might be having a stroke, ask the person to smile, Giardina says. If either side of the face droops, consider that it might be a stroke. Ask the person to repeat what you say and if he can't, and if he cannot raise his arms on command, consider the possibility of a stroke. "If you observe any of these symptoms, you need to call 911 immediately," Giardina says.