For the month of May, PCHA will be focusing on American Stroke Awareness Month. In the 1st post of our series, Sydney Taylor, PCHA Virginia’s ACHD Board Director, shares life-saving information defining stroke and its warning signs.
May is American Stroke Month, and for a good reason. According to the National Stroke Association, a stroke occurs every 40 seconds and is the 5th leading cause of death in the United States. Strokes and heart attacks are often discussed together, but are actually very different. Commonly known as a “brain attack,” a stroke happens when blood flow is cut off to any area of the brain. This lack of oxygen results in death of brain cells, which can lead to all sorts of issues. The extent of the damage done largely depends on the size and type of stroke. People may experience only temporary weakness following a stroke, or they may be permanently disabled or pass away.
There are two categories of stroke, ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic strokes are the most common type of stroke, accounting for approximately 87% of strokes. An ischemic stroke is caused by a blood clot cutting off blood flow to an area of the brain, and there are two subtypes of ischemic stroke – embolic and thrombotic stroke. An embolic stroke occurs if a plaque or clot travels to the brain from another part of the body and gets stuck in a blood vessel in the brain. During a thrombotic stroke, a blood clot forms in an artery in the brain. These types of stroke are most often caused by hypertension (high blood pressure) and/ or cardiac dysrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation. A transient ischemic attack, or TIA, is a temporary loss of blood flow to a part of the brain. A narrowing in any artery that carries blood to the brain – whether it be due to a clot, plaque, or arterial defect – can cause a TIA. Forty percent of individuals who experience a TIA will have a stroke, and almost half of all strokes occur within just a few days of a TIA.
A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a brain aneurysm or a weakened vessel in the brain leaks or bursts. Hypertension is a risk factor for an intracerebral hemorrhagic stroke, in which a vessel bursts and blood leaks into the brain tissue, causing cell death and malfunction of the affected area. Another type of hemorrhagic stroke is called a subarachnoid hemorrhagic stroke. This occurs when there is bleeding between the brain and the surrounding tissues. Taking blood thinners is a risk factor for this type of stroke, which may apply to individuals living with CHD.
Warning signs of a stroke can include any sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arms, or body (particularly on just one side of the body); dizziness; difficulty walking, seeing, speaking, or understanding; confusion; or headache with no obvious cause. If you or your child experience any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately! Here are a few good ways to assess symptoms:
- Have the individual hold their arms out straight, palms up and eyes closed. If they are unable to keep both arms at the same level, this may indicate a stroke.
- If you are out ordering dinner and instead of a salad they request a shoe, this warrants immediate intervention.
- Ask the individual to smile. If one side of their face droops, they may be having a stroke.
Almost 2 million neurons are lost every minute that a stroke goes untreated, which contributes to the extent of damage sustained. From the onset of the stroke, providers only have three hours to administer thrombolytics (“clot-busting” medication) for successful treatment. Of course, any strange or unusual symptom should be reported immediately.
Some people with CHD may have many risk factors for stroke. It is important to speak with your healthcare provider about your risk, follow their recommendations, and continue to get appropriate care to keep your heart and brain healthy!
National Stroke Association. (2017). Signs and symptoms of stroke. Retrieved from http://www.stroke.org/understand-stroke/recognizing-stroke/signs-and-symptoms-stroke
Sydney Taylor is a Congenital Complete Heart Block survivor, and has received pacemaker therapy since she was 15 hours old. She is the Adult CHD Board Director for the Pediatric Congenital Heart Association of Virginia, and received her BSN from Shepherd University in May 2017. She enjoys coffee and a good book, hiking and kayaking around the beautiful Shenandoah Valley area, visiting national parks, and making friends with any and all dogs.