CHICAGO–Imagine that you are out shopping with your mother and she suddenly gets severe hiccups, shortness of breath, or palpitations. Maybe you even notice sudden face and limb pain, nausea, chest pain, or general weakness.
Could it be a stroke? You think that some of these signs don't fit common stroke symptoms, but you might not know that women can display different symptoms than men. According to the American Stroke Association, five warning signs for both men and women can include:
• numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body
• confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
• trouble seeing in one or both eyes
• trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
• severe headache with no known cause
However, some of the most common complaints among women without any of the five warning signs can be loss of consciousness or fainting, difficulty breathing, pain, nausea, and seizures.
According to Eva M. Rzucidlo, MD a vascular surgeon from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. and the chair of the Women's Leadership Committee in the Society for Vascular Surgery®, persons may experience a different warning sign of stroke called a transient ischemic attack (TIA). “Initial symptoms of a TIA usually last for a few minutes to one hour and can be similar to other stroke warning signs,” said Dr. Rzucidlo. “These symptoms usually go away completely within 24 hours, but you should not ignore them; report TIA symptoms to your physician immediately.”
Females make up 60 percent of all people who have strokes, so don’t second-guess the situation. Call 911 immediately if you notice someone having any signs of stroke. Many patients can be treated and helped with a FDA clot-buster medication, if used during what is known as "the three-hour window" after their first symptoms. Your quick response may help one of the more than the 100,000 women under the age of 65 each year that have a stroke and reduce long-term disability.
“Unfortunately, the first sign of carotid artery disease could be a stroke,” noted Dr. Rzucidlo, “so women also should be have their carotid artery (an artery in the neck which supplies blood to the brain) checked periodically by their physician who will listen to the blood flow through a stethoscope. Vascular screening methods are painless and noninvasive tests, and include ultrasound exams or Doppler pressure studies. These tests may reveal possible dangerous conditions like carotid disease that can lead to stroke, leg artery blockages (which can lead to limb loss), or aortic aneurysms which can be fatal if they rupture.”
Individuals 55 years of age or older with cardiovascular risk factors such as a history of hypertension, diabetes mellitus, smoking, hypercholesterolemia, or known cardiovascular disease may also benefit from preventive screening for vascular disease. Appropriate screening examinations in high-risk individuals include ultrasound scan of the aorta to identify aortic aneurysms; ultrasound scan of the carotid arteries to assess stroke risk; and blood pressure measurements in the legs to identify PAD and risk of heart disease.
Strokes can affect anyone at any age but there are risk factors for stroke that are even more important for women under 55. Depending on these factors, women who have migraines with aura (visual disturbances such as flashing dots or blind spots) can be up to 10 times more likely to suffer a stroke. Women who take even a low-estrogen birth control pill may be two or times as likely to have a stroke if other risk factors are present.
Also at risk are females with autoimmune diseases such as diabetes or lupus; those who have had more than one miscarriage who may be at higher risk for blood clots; and those having a thick waist and high triglyceride (blood fat) level. Post-menopausal women with a waist size larger than 35.2 inches and a triglyceride level higher than 128 milligrams per liter may have a five-fold increased risk for stroke.
To decrease your chances of having a stroke, make sure your blood pressure and diabetes numbers are under control. Be active, have a healthy diet, and watch your weight, especially around your waist area. Limit alcohol consumption and do not smoke. By quitting smoking the risk of heart disease and stroke can be cut in half just one year later after you quit and it continues to decline until it's as low as a nonsmoker's risk.
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About the Society for Vascular Surgery
The Society for Vascular Surgery® (SVS) is a not-for-profit professional medical society, composed primarily of vascular surgeons, that seeks to advance excellence and innovation in vascular health through education, advocacy, research, and public awareness. SVS is the national advocate for 4,500 specialty-trained vascular surgeons and other medical professionals who are dedicated to the prevention and cure of vascular disease.