Five Things You Need to Ask Your Doctor about Stroke

Stroke is the third leading cause of death and the leading cause of adult disability in the United States. Every year, stroke strikes approximately 750,000 Americans, killing 160,000 and forever changing the lives of many who survive.

The good news is that up to 80 percent of strokes can be prevented every year; the bad news is that studies conducted by the National Stroke Association show that fewer than 30 percent of those surveyed said their doctors discussed the topic of stroke during annual exams.

A stroke is a “brain attack,” cutting off vital blood and oxygen to the brain cells that control everything we do -- from speaking, to walking, to breathing. Most strokes occur when arteries are blocked by blood clots or by the gradual build-up of plaque and other fatty deposits. Some strokes can be caused by arteries rupturing when weak spots on the blood vessel wall break.

To help patients get the information they need to control their risk factors for stroke, the National Stroke Association has launched the Ask Your Doctor education campaign, urging you to ask your doctor the following five questions on your next visit.

1. Am I at risk for stroke?

Most people have some stroke risk. A few stroke risk factors are beyond your control, such as being over age 55, being a male, being an African-American, having diabetes, and having a family history of stroke.

There are medical and lifestyle risk factors you can control. Medical stroke risk factors include previous stroke, previous episode of transient ischemic attack, or “TIA,” high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, atrial fibrillation and carotid artery disease. Lifestyle stroke risk factors include smoking, being overweight, and drinking too much alcohol.

2. How do I lower my risk for stroke?

Address the risk factors you can control. Know your blood pressure, and work with your doctor to keep it under control. If you smoke, stop. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Know your cholesterol, and if it is high, ask your doctor for advice on lowering it. If you have diabetes, follow your doctor’s recommendations carefully to control your condition. Include exercise in your daily routine; a brisk walk, swim or other activity for as little as 30 minutes a day can improve your health in many ways. Cut down on sodium and fat in your diet. Finally, ask your doctor if you have circulation problems.

3. What if I have a stroke?

If you have a stroke, seek immediate medical attention -- stroke is an emergency. Learn to recognize stroke symptoms. Common symptoms include: sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm 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. Call 911 if you see or have any of these symptoms. Treatment can be more effective if given promptly -- every minute counts.

4. What are my recovery and rehab options after my stroke?

Rehabilitation starts in the hospital as soon as possible after the stroke. In patients who are stable, rehabilitation may begin immediately after the stroke, and should be continued as necessary after release from the hospital. Depending on the severity of the stroke, rehabilitation options include physical, speech or occupational therapy delivered in a number of settings: a rehab unit in the hospital, a rehabilitation hospital, home therapy, outpatient therapy clinics, and a long-term care facility that provides therapy and skilled nursing care.

5. How can I support those touched by stroke?

If you are the primary caregiver for a stroke patient, you may want to find a support group. Check with your doctor or hospital, or contact the National Stroke Association. If a friend or relative has a stroke, offer to relieve the caregiver for a few hours a week; volunteer to run errands, do grocery shopping or provide meals. Don’t be afraid to ask the patient and caregiver what they need.

For more information on stroke prevention, treatment and recovery, visit www.stroke.org, the National Stroke Association’s Web site or call (800) STROKES.

6. Techniques to reduce the risk of another stroke

Include eating a heart healthy diet- (a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and low in saturated fat, trans fat and salt, to promote wellness and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis or obesity), and taking aspirin- (Aspirin has recently been widely studied in terms of both preventing cardiovascular disease, as well as in managing the conditions of people who already have heart disease or a history of heart attack), or other antiplatelet agents, (Medications that block the formation of blood clots by decreasing the ability of the body's natural blood-clotters (platelets) to bind together). In patients with severe blockage of the carotid artery supplying the brain, surgery called carotid endarterectomy can be performed to reduce the risk of a future stroke. Less invasive treatments of carotid artery blockage, such as the use of stents are very encouraging.

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