It can begin as a terrible headache, one worse than the usual grind. It could progress to your limbs feeling weak on one side of your body, or trouble walking, garbled speech, or a loss of vision.
Experiencing these symptoms may mean you are having a stroke. With June being Stroke Awareness Month in Canada, doctors are advising that the key to reducing the risk of stroke lies in prevention.
“Heart disease and stroke is the leading cause of death and hospitalization in Canadians,” said Diane Shanks, director of Emergency, Critical Care Medicine and Cardiorespirartory at Chinook Regional Hospital.
“People that develop those diseases early on, about 80 per cent of them are probably preventable. If we can focus on any aspect of this, it’s probably the prevention opportunities that people hear about all the time, but we still have a long way to go for people really acting upon those.”
Reducing risk begins with eating a healthy diet, watching your intake of salt and sugar, maintaining an active lifestyle and quitting smoking.
“Those are all things completely within our control, and those are things that have a really, really big impact on your risk for heart disease and stroke,” said Shanks.
It’s estimated there are 1.6 million Canadians living with heart disease or the effects of a stroke, according to The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.
A stroke is a sudden loss of brain function caused by the interruption of blood flow to the brain (ischemic stroke) or the rupture of blood vessels in the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). Both cause brain cells in the affected area to die.
If the stroke is caused by a blood clot, there are certain medications for qualified patients that can break up the clot to try to return blood circulation to the brain, said Shanks. Sometimes patients must be sent to Calgary hospital for further intervention.
The hospital is a busy place, with high volumes of people using the emergency department and challenges having enough beds for patients, said Shanks. By making healthy lifestyle decisions, the public can ease the burden on health system resources.
“We admitted approximately 200 patients in this past year as a result of stroke and stroke-like symptoms, and almost double that for emergency department care. We certainly have a high incidence of it,” said Shanks.
To determine if you or a loved one is experiencing a stroke, use the acronym FAST, which stands for Face, Arms, Speech, and Time, explained Corinna Hartley, stroke co-ordinator.
“Face – if you see any facial drooping or asymmetry in the face; Arms – if you ask somebody to raise their arms and they cannot do it or have difficulty; Speech – any speech problem, garbled speech, or cannot get words out. Those are the three key warning signs that will enact someone to call immediately. T stands for Time.”
If anyone experiences any of those symptoms, they should call Emergency Medical Services, or 9-1-1, as soon as possible.
Going to a clinic can delay treatment, said Hartley, whereas EMS staff are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of stroke and will bring the patient to the hospital.
“Time really is brain,” she said. “Call EMS, 9-1-1, get the patient seen so that they can be diagnosed and get quick treatment.”
Stroke is the leading cause of adult disability, with approximately 400,000 Canadians living with the effects of stroke. It can take many months or years of therapy to recover or partly recover from a stroke.
Through an Alberta Health Services program launched just over one year ago, some patients can recover in the comfort of their own homes with the assistance of an expert team comprised of rehab therapists, physiotherapists, speech pathologists, and recreational therapists.
“They will actually go to their home and work with them in their home to help with their recovery in an environment that is more familiar to them and more conducive to their recovery. It allows them to walk their own stairs at home and those sorts of things,” said Shanks.
For more information on stroke and heart disease, visit heartandstroke.ab.ca.
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