Stroke is among the leading causes of death in the U.S., but it is still a misunderstood health condition. Plenty of myths and misguided ideas surround stroke, from its causes and symptoms to its potential severity and the particulars of recovery.
To help clear up some misunderstandings, Efrain Salgado, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Florida Stroke Center and Neurosonology Laboratory, explains the truth about 10 common stroke myths
1. Myth: Strokes Happen Only to the Elderly
Truth: Ten percent of all strokes occur in patients age 50 or younger, even in children. “No one is spared,” Dr. Salgado says. “Strokes in children and young adults occur not only for reasons less common than in older individuals, such as those associated with certain abused drugs, trauma, and even pregnancy, but also associated with the more traditional risk factors in the older population, such as hypertension and diabetes.”
2. Myth: There’s Nothing You Can Do to Prevent a Stroke
Truth: As many as 80 percent of all strokes may be preventable by the control of multiple risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obstructive sleep apnea, and avoiding cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption, Dr. Salgado explains.
Talk with your doctor about your stroke risks and what you can do to reduce them.
3. Myth: Women Are Far Less Likely Than Men to Have a Stroke
Truth: More women than men have strokes. “The most obvious reason for this is that women live longer than men and age is the most important non-modifiable risk factor for stroke,” Dr. Salgado says.
4. Myth: You Should Take an Aspirin if You Think You’re Having a Stroke
Truth: You SHOULD NOT take an aspirin if you think you are having a stroke.
“The reason for this is that you do not know the type of stroke you are having,” Dr. Salgado explains. “There are two major types of stroke: those due to a lack of blood flow to a certain part of the brain (ischemic stroke) and the other due to a rupture of a brain vessel causing bleeding inside the brain (hemorrhagic stroke). If you take an aspirin and your stroke is of the bleeding type, you will worsen the stroke. The best approach is to call 911 so you can be taken to the closest emergency room, where we can find out the type of stroke that you are having so that we can provide you with the appropriate treatment.”
5. Myth: Strokes Don’t Run in Families
Truth: Some strokes do run in families, either as a result of inheriting some of the well-known risk factors or as a result of inheriting certain other conditions that may predispose you to stroke, Dr. Salgado says.
6. Myth: Strokes Always Begin with a Serious Headache
Truth: “Most acute strokes occur without headache, but rather with the acute onset of a painless, focal neurological deficit very easily remembered by the mnemonic BE FAST:
Balance or the loss of balance
Eyes or loss of vision
Face or facial weakness
Arm or arm weakness
Speech or speech impairment
Time or time to call 911 immediately for any of these symptoms.
“The key is that any one or more than one of these symptoms occurs suddenly and totally unexpectedly, ‘out of the blue.’ A sudden, very severe, unusual headache may also be a stroke symptom, but this happens much less frequently than the other symptoms noted above,” Dr. Salgado says.
7. Myth: Stroke Symptoms Are Hard to Recognize
Truth: As noted previously, stroke symptoms are easy to recognize most of the time. However, it’s important that you and those in your immediate circle can recognize those symptoms. Someone experiencing a stroke may or may not be able to communicate symptoms that aren’t obvious to others, such as vision problems, arm weakness or a headache.
8. Myth: If Your Stroke Symptoms Pass, You Don’t Need Treatment
Truth: “Stroke symptoms may pass after a few minutes,” Dr. Salgado says. “This is what we call a TIA, or transient ischemic attack. This is just as much a medical emergency as a stroke and should prompt you to seek immediate medical attention. This is a warning that you are at high risk of having a full-blown stroke within a short period of time. Therefore, the quicker you can be assessed, the quicker we can intervene to prevent you from having a full-blown stroke.”
A post-TIA assessment will include a physical examination, including a check of your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose levels and other important markers of health. You may also undergo a carotid artery ultrasound to see how blood is flowing through the arteries in your neck, as well as a computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test of the brain to look for signs of stroke.
9. Myth: Rehab Is Helpful Only Right After a Stroke
Truth: Stroke rehabilitation is a life-long process. “Continued improvement can take place over the course of many months or years, although most stroke survivors are typically left with some degree of deficit,” Dr. Salgado says. “This is the reason why prevention will always provide better results than treating you after you have astroke.”
10. Myth: If You’ve Had a Stroke, You Won’t Have Another
Truth: Having a stroke increases your risk of having another. “Indeed, approximately 20 percent of all strokes are repeat strokes, again emphasizing the need to be proactive in lowering your risk after you have already had one.”