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By Scott Murray

Ever hear the expression “time is of the essence?” This phrase can apply to many situations in life, but in the case of a medical emergency like a stroke, time can make the difference between life and death.

This month is National Stroke Awareness Month. During this annual observance, health-care facilities and professionals aim to spread awareness of stroke and educate people about stroke risks, signs and symptoms of a stroke, and what they should do if they think they or a loved one may be experiencing a stroke.

In order to understand the above, you need to understand the true definition of a stroke. People sometimes think of a stroke as being similar to a heart attack; however, a stroke is actually a medical condition where there is a lack of blood supply to specific areas of the brain. There are two main types of strokes: ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are due to a blockage of an artery, either through a blood clot from another part of the body or from deposit buildup within the vessel. Hemorrhagic strokes are caused by a rupture of a blood vessel resulting in bleeding within the brain itself.

Strokes affect thousands of people every year. While anyone can have a stroke, some groups are at a higher risk, including: the elderly, males, African-Americans, people with high blood pressure or high cholesterol, smokers, people with a high level of alcohol consumption, people who are obese, people who are physically inactive, people with conditions such as atrial fibrillation and atherosclerosis.

Some of these are modifiable risk factors. In addition to quitting smoking, increasing your physical activity, and limiting alcohol consumption, eating healthy (low-fat/low salt foods, whole grains, fruits, vegetables) can also lower your risk for stroke.

The most common symptoms of a stroke include: sudden onset of weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially in one side of the body; sudden onset of a severe headache; sudden onset of difficulty seeing in one or both eyes; sudden onset of dizziness, coordination, or loss of balance; sudden onset of difficulty speaking or understanding, or confusion.

FAST is a great tool used to help detect symptoms of stroke and gauge the responsiveness of stroke victims:

* Face: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

* Arms: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

* Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?

* Time: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.

Time is critical, since a stroke means brain cells are not receiving blood supply and therefore oxygen. This means death of brain tissue, which can result in permanent damage. It is important to learn the multiple warning signs of a stroke, then call 911 immediately to get the patient to the nearest emergency department.

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Scott Murray is chief of emergency services at Nashoba Valley Medical Center.

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