Stroke or angin ahmar is the leading cause of death and disability in Malaysia. Increasingly, over 50,000 new cases of stroke are reported every year.
With prompt treatment, stroke does not have to be disabling or deadly. Possessing knowledge of how to spot the signs of stroke and what actions to take can possibly help save a life and avoid potential complications when it strikes. There are also many lifestyle changes we can make to reduce our risk of stroke.
Read on to learn more about the different types of stroke, its early signs, symptoms, and causes, as well as how we can prevent it.
What is stroke?
Stroke occurs when blood supply to parts of our brain is reduced or interrupted. This deprives our brain tissue of the nutrients and oxygen necessary for its survival. Within minutes, the cells start to die, impeding our brain functions.
Types of stroke
In Malaysia, two forms of stroke account for its occurrence — ischaemic and hemorrhagic, where two-thirds of stroke patients have an ischaemic stroke and the other one-third have a hemorrhagic stroke. Some people may also experience a temporary disruption of blood flow to the brain, known as a transient ischemic attack (TIA).
Ischaemic stroke is the most common type of stroke, accounting for 80% of all stroke cases in Malaysia. It occurs when there is a blood vessel blockage, limiting blood flow to the brain.
Blood vessel blockages are often caused by embolism or thrombosis. An embolism occurs when a blood clot travels along within our bloodstream and lodges in the blood vessels in our brain, while thrombosis occurs when fatty deposits cause the blood vessels in our brain to narrow, resulting in a blockage.
Hemorrhagic stroke accounts for one-third of all stroke cases in Malaysia and occurs when a blood vessel in our brain leaks or ruptures, causing bleeding in the brain.
A ruptured blood vessel is often the result of poorly-managed high blood pressure, trauma, overuse of blood thinners (anticoagulants), bulges at weak spots along the blood vessel walls (aneurysm), protein deposits along blood vessel walls that leads to weak spots (cerebral amyloid angiopathy) and ischemic stroke that lead to haemorrhage.
Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA)
Those with Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), also called a ministroke, experience the symptoms of a full-blown stroke, but only temporarily. The symptoms may even last as short as just 5 minutes.
Similar to ischemic stroke, TIA is caused by a reduction of blood flow to the brain due to blood vessel blockage. While TIA usually does not have a long-term impact, it is an indicator that we may have a partially blocked or narrowed artery that may increase our risk of stroke later in life. If you experience symptoms of stroke, you should seek emergency care even if the symptoms subsided, as it’s not possible to tell apart TIA and other forms of stroke solely based on your symptoms.
Signs of Stroke
The type of stroke and the part of the brain affected can manifest different symptoms. An easy way to remember the common symptoms is through the acronym “BE FAST”, which also double up as a reminder that speed is key when stroke strikes.
- Balance: A person with a stroke may feel dizzy, stumble or experience a loss of coordination.
- Eyes: Those having a stroke may have blurred or blackened vision, face trouble seeing in one or both eyes, or see double.
- Face: Stroke may cause facial numbness, often only on one side, resulting in the tell-tale sign of facial drooping.
- Arm: If a person is unable to raise one arm or if it drifts downwards, it may indicate a weakness or numbness in one arm, a sign of stroke.
- Speech: A person with a stroke may appear confused, have difficulty speaking, understanding speech and tend to slur.
- Time: In stroke treatment, time is crucial. Brain cells die with every passing minute. Call 999 immediately if you observe any of the above symptoms.
Other symptoms of a stroke can include a sudden and severe headache, vomiting, and fatigue. Learn more about the early warning signs of stroke and how to help someone having a stroke here.
5 things to do when someone is having a stroke
Call 999 immediately
In stroke treatment, time is crucial. There is a high possibility of brain cells dying with every passing minute. If you notice a person displaying any signs of a stroke, call 999 immediately instead of transporting the affected individual to the Accident and Emergency department on your own.
Dialling 999 not only ensures the prompt transportation of the person with stroke to the hospital. This call also triggers a chain of events. Trained paramedics will be able to identify the symptoms of stroke, administer life-saving treatment en-route to the hospital, and inform the emergency department so that appropriate immediate medical attention is available upon arrival.
Take note of when the symptoms started
Some of the most effective treatments for stroke can potentially reverse or stop symptoms from progressing. However, it has to be administered within 6 hours from the start of symptoms.
With an awareness of the time the symptoms started, the most appropriate and effective treatment can be determined.
Perform CPR if necessary
It has been observed that we may fall unconscious during a stroke. If consciousness is lost, check their pulse and breathing. If there is no pulse, start performing CPR immediately.
Do not give them food or drink
Avoid giving food or drink when you suspect someone is having a stroke. A stroke can cause general muscle weakness or even paralysis. This may result in swallowing difficulty, posing a risk of choking.
Do not give them any medication
Depending on the type of stroke, different types of treatment will be required. While a blood-thinning aspirin may help with ischaemic stroke, it may be detrimental for someone with a haemorrhagic stroke.
With no visible way of distinguishing the type of stroke a person is having, it is best not to administer medication as it could further complicate matters or worsen the condition.
What causes a stroke?
There are many risk factors that can increase stroke risk. Some are non-modifiable factors such as age and family history, while others are lifestyle factors that we have control over.
Our arteries naturally become narrower and harder over the years, which is why our stroke risk tends to increase with age.
Some strokes may be caused by genetic disorders that may block blood flow to the brain. If a close relative of yours has had a stroke, your stroke risk may be higher as well.
Being overweight makes it more likely for us to develop high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes, all of which contribute to higher stroke risk.
Excessive Alcohol Intake
Excessive alcohol intake can raise our blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and may even trigger an irregular heartbeat. These can contribute to an increased risk of stroke.
Cigarette smoke, including second-hand smoke, can cause a fatty buildup in our main neck artery and thicken our blood, making it more likely to form a clot. Nicotine also increases our blood pressure and hence our risk of stroke.
Existing Health Conditions
Pre-existing medical conditions can significantly increase our risk of stroke.
- Hypertension: When poorly managed, hypertension puts extra strain on our heart and blood vessels, leading to an increased risk of the formation of blood clots and narrowing of blood vessels.
- High cholesterol: Too much cholesterol in our blood can lead to fatty buildup on artery walls, increasing our risk of ischaemic stroke.
- Stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA): Those who previously had a stroke, TIA, or heart attack have a higher risk of a stroke recurrence.
- Diabetes: Excess sugar in our blood can lead to the buildup of clots or fat deposits along our blood vessels, leading to an increased risk of stroke.
- Heart conditions: Some heart conditions such as coronary artery disease may cause plaque buildup in our arteries, while heart valve defects, irregular heartbeat, and enlarged heart chambers may cause blood clots that could break loose and block the flow of blood to our brains.
How to prevent a stroke?
While some risk factors of stroke such as age and family history are non-modifiable, there are many lifestyle habits we can adopt to significantly reduce our stroke risk.
Lower your blood pressure
High blood pressure is one of the top causes of stroke. However, we may not always know that we have hypertension since it often does not show any symptoms. Hence, for those with normal blood pressure levels, it is recommended that we take a blood pressure reading at least once every 3 years.
It is commonly known that smoking is harmful to our bodies, including raising our risk of stroke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, get support, and quit smoking today to reduce your stroke risk.
Take note of your heart health
If you have pre-existing heart conditions, make sure you consult your doctor and follow their advice to keep it under control, to reduce your risk of stroke.
Exercising can help us lose weight and reduce the likelihood of us developing health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, which are risk factors of stroke. You can start small by choosing to take the stairs instead of the escalator and taking the longer route home. Doing a short 30-minutes workout at home, 5 days a week, can also help.
Limit your alcohol intake
Drink in moderation, or not at all. To prevent any health complications caused by excessive alcohol intake, ladies should limit themselves to 1 drink a day, while men should only have up to 2 drinks a day.
Adopt a healthy diet
Load up on fresh fruits and vegetables and cut down your intake of salt and trans and saturated fats, which can clog our arteries and raise blood pressure. Eating healthy can also help us shed some weight, further reducing our stroke risk.
Manage your diabetes
If you have diabetes, keep it under control with regular exercise, a healthy diet, and medication prescribed by your doctor.
Watch your cholesterol levels
Exercising regularly and sticking to a healthy diet can help to reduce your cholesterol levels, but sometimes it may not be enough. Sometimes, doctors may prescribe medication to help keep your cholesterol in check.
Take your medication
For those with an existing health condition that raises your risk of stroke, make sure you follow your doctor’s advice and keep it under control. If you have had a stroke previously, make sure to take any medication your doctor prescribes to prevent another one.
Caring for a loved one post-stroke
Stroke recovery is a gradual process that can take several months to years. Besides professional medical care and rehabilitation therapy, familial support can go a long way in helping your loved ones regain independence and rediscover self-confidence. Find out how you can make a difference to your loved one’s recovery post-stroke by connecting with support groups here.