by FirstHealth of the Carolinas

During National Stroke Month, Melanie Blacker, M.D., neurohospitalist and medical director of the stroke center at FirstHealth of the Carolinas, shares some surprising facts about stroke you may not know.

1. There are different kinds of stroke.

The most common type of stroke is Ischemic Stroke.  Ischemic stroke occurs when a blood vessel carrying blood to the brain is blocked by a blood clot and a portion of the brain is deprived of oxygen. Ischemic strokes account for about 87 percent of all strokes.   This type often exhibits the more obvious stroke symptoms.  The best way to remember these symptoms is to use the acronym F.A.S.T.

F – Is one side of the FACE drooping down or numb?

A – Is there sudden weakness or numbness in either ARM?

S – Is SPEECH slurred or the person unable to speak/hard to understand?

T – TIME is of the essence.  Call 9-1-1 immediately!

Additional symptoms of stroke that should not be ignored include sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes, sudden trouble walking (dizziness, loss of balance or coordination), or sudden severe headache with no known cause.

The second type is Hemorrhagic Stroke. Hemorrhagic strokes are less common; in fact only 13 percent of all strokes are hemorrhagic, but they are responsible for about 40 percent of all stroke deaths.  A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel or clot bursts and spills blood, depriving the brain of oxygen.  The most common signs of this type of stroke are nausea, vomiting, sudden loss of consciousness, intense headaches and numbness that may occur on only one side of the body or all over.

2. Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIA) are serious events.

When blood flow to part of the brain stops for a short period of time, also called transient ischemic attack (TIA), it can mimic stroke-like symptoms. These symptoms appear and last less than 24 hours before disappearing. While TIAs generally do not cause permanent brain damage, they are a serious warning sign that a stroke may happen in the future and should not be ignored.

3. Where you live might contribute to your chances of a stroke.

People from the Southeast United States have the highest rates of stroke risk in the entire country.  In a band, often called the “stroke belt,” that stretches from the panhandle of Texas and goes straight across the ocean, the rates are remarkably higher than in other regions.  North Carolina is ranked 6th highest state for stroke mortality, 23 percent higherthan the national rate. 

In the past 10 years, the number of stroke patients treated at FirstHealth hospitals has increased significantly from 470 to 685 annually. In 2018, 90 percent of strokes were ischemic and 10 percent were hemorrhagic. In addition, another 217patients had transient ischemic attacks.

4. There are a lot of risk factors that can contribute to stroke.

Eating habits, physical activity, smoking and drinking are examples of lifestyle stroke risk factors. Lifestyle risk factors are habits or behaviors people choose to engage in. If changed, they can directly affect some medical risk factors by improving them.

High blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (AFib), high cholesterol, diabetes and circulation problems are medical risk factors for stroke that can often be controlled by medications and special diets. It’s important to talk to your health care provider about treatment options.

Some risk factors for stroke are simply not controllable but knowing what they are is still important in determining your overall risk for stroke.

Age: A stroke can happen to anyone, at any time and any age. Stroke risk however, increases with age. After the age of 55, stroke risk doubles for every decade a person is alive.

Gender: Women experience more strokes each year than men, mainly because women live longer than men and stroke occurs more often at older ages. By having strokes at an older age, women suffer greater disability after stroke. Women are less aware that they are at a higher risk for stroke and only somewhat knowledgeable about the risk factors themselves. Stroke kills twice as many women as breast cancer does every year.

Stroke incidence is higher in men at younger ages.

Race/Ethnicity: African Americans have twice the risk of stroke, partially because they are more susceptible to high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islanders also have higher risk of stroke than Caucasians.

Family History: Your stroke risk increases if a family member (parent, grandparent or sibling) has had a stroke or a heart attack at an early age.

After receiving her medical degree from West Virginia School of Medicine, Dr. Melanie Blacker, M.D. completed her neurology residency at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. She also had the opportunity to train at The National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institute for Health, the single largest research entity in the world engaged in both basic science and clinical research in the neurosciences.  Dr. Blacker joined FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital as a neurohospitalist in 2014. In January 2017, Dr. Blacker was appointed FirstHealth’s stroke center medical director, a role in which she works to improve stroke care throughout the FirstHealth hospital system and in the community at large.