Half of People Who Have a Stroke Notice This a Week Earlier, Study Says
Noticing this warning sign could save your life.
If you have an ischemic stroke—the result of blood clots or narrowed arteries reducing blood flow to the brain—you've got mere minutes before your brain cells begin to die due to insufficient oxygen. And because of the sudden onset nature of stroke symptoms, it may sometimes seem that they strike with no warning at all.
Yet studies show that in fact, many people display warning signs up to a week before experiencing a life-threatening stroke. The symptoms may be more subtle—and fleeting—but if you know what to look for and seek medical help in time, you may be able to avoid a more serious medical emergency mere days down the road. Read on to find out which symptoms may tip you off to a stroke up to a week in advance, and what to do if you experience them.
According to a 2005 study published in the journal Neurology, many patients will experience symptoms before having a full-blown ischemic stroke. "They are often preceded by a transient ischemic attack (TIA), a 'warning stroke' or 'mini-stroke' that shows symptoms similar to a stroke, typically lasts less than five minutes, and does not injure the brain," the researchers explain.
Just how often do these TIA strokes occur before ischemic stroke? It depends on who you ask. That particular study observed that 549 out of 2,416 stroke victims experienced TIA stroke symptoms preceding ischemic stroke—a rate of roughly one in five. Other estimates have placed that number higher, stating that up to 43 percent—or nearly half— of ischemic strokes are preceded by a warning stroke.
According to the Neurology study, warning signs of an ischemic stroke may present up to seven days before the event occurs. Of the 2,416 subjects observed in that study, 17 percent occurred on the day of the stroke, 9 percent occurred one day prior, and 43 percent occurred during the week leading up to the ischemic stroke.
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Symptoms of a TIA are notably similar to the symptoms of an ischemic stroke, but are temporary. "The effects last a few minutes to a few hours and fully resolve within 24 hours," explains one report by the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS).
These may include numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg "especially on one side of the body," new confusion, difficulty speaking, vision impairment in one or both eyes, dizziness or loss of balance, difficulty walking, and headaches. As the Neurology study notes, all stroke symptoms tend to occur suddenly, with no apparent cause.
While a TIA may seem to pass quickly—and therefore can often go undiagnosed—the researchers say it's imperative to seek medical attention immediately following a warning stroke.
"We have known for some time that TIAs are often a precursor to a major stroke," says study author Peter M. Rothwell, MD, PhD, a clinical neurologist at Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, England. "What we haven't been able to determine is how urgently patients must be assessed following a TIA in order to receive the most effective preventive treatment. This study indicates that the timing of a TIA is critical, and the most effective treatments should be initiated within hours of a TIA in order to prevent a major attack," he explained via press release.
According to the Mayo Clinic, in the event of a TIA stroke you may expect to undergo a physical exam, CT scans, an ultrasound of the carotid artery, an MRI, or an echocardiogram to reveal the cause of your warning stroke. "Depending on the cause of your TIA, your doctor may prescribe medication to reduce the tendency for blood to clot or may recommend surgery or a balloon procedure (angioplasty)," their professionals explain.
Speak with your doctor immediately if you suspect you've experienced a mini-stroke in the past.