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Recognizing a Stroke Benefits All of Us

May is American Stroke Association National Stroke Awareness Month. I have often struggled to describe what stroke is to those unaccustomed to it, and generally, I explain that stroke is a sudden problem of brain function caused by an interruption in its blood supply. This interruption can come via ischemia, or the sudden absence of blood supply, or hemorrhage, in which case the eruption of blood directly into brain tissue causes significant injury. But even this description does little to illustrate what having a stroke feels like, which is a problem shared by new stroke patients daily.

During my career treating patients with acute stroke, one of the most common aspects I have observed is the confusion and bewilderment that stroke patients experience during their stroke. They struggle to comprehend what exactly is suddenly happening to them. Unlike other medical emergencies, such as a heart attack, stroke can present itself in a wide variety of ways. Given our current technology-laden society, a better description might be to compare stroke to a computer glitch: just as when our smartphone suddenly freezes, or our computer screen turns black. It may not be immediately apparent what the problem is. However, in the case of stroke, a failure to quickly recognize the problem can rob someone of their ability to get emergency stroke treatments that offer the best chance of a good outcome.

This problem compounds when we hold preconceived notions of whom we think is at risk of stroke. Many consider stroke to be a disease that only afflicts the elderly or those with a previous history of stroke. However, the last several decades have shown the opposite, as there has been a surge in younger patients suffering a stroke. Between 2000 and 2010 alone, there was a 44% increase in stroke among 25 to 44-year-olds.

Therefore we must all be on the lookout for the symptoms of acute stroke:

B: Balance- Sudden loss of balance or coordination

E: Eyes- Sudden loss or impairment of vision

F: Face- Sudden facial weakness or asymmetry

A: Arms- Inability to move and control an arm or hand

S: Speech- Inability to produce communication (speaking, writing, typing) or understand communication (reading, understanding a conversation)

T: Time- Time to call 911


Photo of Amir Khan, MD

Amir Khan, MD

About the Author: Amir Khan, MD is a  fellowship-trained vascular and interventional neurologist. Dr. Khan holds a faculty appointment with University of California, San Francisco in the UCSF Fresno Department of Surgery. 

To learn more about Amir Khan, MD, click here.