Strokes: Know the signs, act fast


October 1, 2008

Three simple questions can help the lay person determine if a person has suffered a stroke. Learn them and use them.

Strokes can happen anywhere, anytime. They are the number one cause of serious, long-term disability in the United States, affecting 750,000 Americans annually, and the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer, according to statistics compiled and published by the Stroke Awareness Organization of Southern California (SOCAL). Certain individuals may be more prone to stroke than others, but strokes can happen to anyone – to someone who seems healthy and doesn’t appear to have health problems.

What is a stroke?

A stroke is what happens to a person’s body when part of the brain is cut off from its blood supply and stops working, usually because one of the arteries that supplies oxygen-carrying blood to the brain has been damaged. Most strokes are one of two types, reports the National Stroke Association. The most common (85 percent) is an ischemic stroke, caused by blockage of a blood vessel in the brain, usually by a blood clot or by fatty deposits on the vessel wall. In 15 percent of cases, a stroke is caused by a burst vessel or hemorrhage. A ruptured blood vessel prevents normal flow and allows blood to leak into brain tissue, destroying it.

Part of the brain, deprived of oxygen, could be destroyed within minutes, but other tissue parts may be damaged and destroyed over longer period of time, up to several hours, depending on the extent of blockage or hemorrhage. That is why it is important to determine if a person’s symptoms align with those of a stroke and, if they do, to seek medical help immediately. Recognizing the symptoms and acting fast can save a life and limit disabilities.

Warning signs of stroke

Various medical resources and stroke awareness groups list the following early symptoms of a stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in face, arm, hand, or leg, especially on one side of the body;
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding;
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes;
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination; and
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

What to do first

How do you recognize a stroke? Sometimes symptoms of a stroke are difficult to identify, but anyone can identify key early symptoms by asking three simple questions:

  1. Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
  2. Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  3. Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence such as “It is sunny out today.” Are the words slurred? Can the patient repeat the sentence correctly?

If the person has trouble with any of these tasks, call 9-1-1 immediately and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher.

Researchers found that people who are not medically trained can use these three questions to correctly identify facial weakness, arm weakness, and speech problems. The American Stoke Association is promoting the dissemination of this knowledge to as many people as possible. If more people know what to do if someone may have had or is having a stroke, more lives can be saved.

Case study

A mass e-mail message that has been widely circulated recently describes a case in which a woman stumbled and fell at a backyard barbecue. According to the author of the e-mail who was close friends with the hosts of the party, the woman who had fallen assured everyone that she was fine and said she had tripped over a brick because of her new shoes. Her friends cleaned her up and prepared a new plate of food for her. According to accounts from the party, she appeared a bit shaken up, but proceeded to enjoy herself the rest of the evening. In the wee hours of the morning, her husband called a close relative of the e-mail author to say that his wife had been taken to the hospital. Later in the day, she died.

The woman had suffered a stroke at the party. The intent of the e-mail was to tell readers that if someone at the party had known to ask her the three questions listed above, the stroke victim may still be with us.


Many organizations, some national and others local, focus on stroke awareness and helping stroke victims and their friends and family. Visit these sites to learn more about strokes, mini-strokes, risk factors, statistics, and treatments.

American Stroke Association (

National Stroke Association (

Stroke Awareness (

Stroke Awareness Foundation (

Stroke Awareness of Everyone, SAFE (

Information contained in this article was provided through the Safety & Health Committee of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association.

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