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The five health conditions that can mimic stroke symptoms

When it comes to our health, few things are as alarming as experiencing symptoms that resemble those of a stroke.

For Australians over 60, understanding the signs of a stroke is crucial, as the risk of stroke increases with age. However, it’s also important to be aware of other health conditions that can mimic stroke symptoms.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced, preventing brain tissue from getting oxygen and nutrients. A stroke can also happen when a blood vessel in the brain bursts.

Typical stroke symptoms include:

  • sudden numbness or weakness in the face, an arm, or a leg, especially on one side of the body
  • confusion
  • trouble speaking, or difficulty understanding speech
  • trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or lack of coordination
  • a severe headache with no known cause.

However, around 20 per cent of the time, these symptoms may not indicate a stroke but rather a ‘stroke mimic’. These are conditions that present with similar symptoms but have different underlying causes.

“Symptoms in stroke mimics can be very similar to an actual stroke,” says Dr Jayne Zhang, an assistant professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “It’s very difficult to differentiate, so it’s important to go to the hospital when you have these symptoms – regardless of what it is. We don’t ever want to miss a stroke.”

It’s essential to seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, as prompt treatment is critical for a stroke. But what about those times when it’s not a stroke? Here are five common health issues that could be mistaken for this serious
condition.

Five health conditions that can mimic stroke symptoms

Migraine

Migraines are intense headaches that can cause throbbing pain on one side of your head. They can also cause nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Many individuals who experience migraines may notice specific warning signs or symptoms up to 24 hours before the onset of a migraine. These symptoms can include mood changes, food cravings or changes in appetite, visual or sensory disturbances, and uncontrollable yawning.

A complicated migraine is harder to distinguish from a stroke. “When someone has a complicated migraine, they start out with a headache, but that gradually evolves to weakness or numbness on one side of the body, very much similar to a stroke,” Dr Zhang says.

However, strokes are sudden and a complicated migraine typically has a gradual onset.

Seizure

Seizures are caused by sudden, uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. They can cause changes in awareness, thinking, behaviour and body movement. A generalised seizure can affect both sides of the brain, and what’s known as a focal seizure affects one side of the brain.

If you have a seizure, you might experience symptoms similar to a stroke, such as weakness, numbness, and speech difficulties. However, seizures often include convulsions or jerking movements, which are not typical of strokes.

High or low blood sugar

For those with diabetes, episodes of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) can cause symptoms that resemble a stroke. Low blood sugar can lead to confusion, slurred speech, dizziness, and weakness. If it’s very low, you could lose consciousness or have a seizure.

High blood sugar may cause fatigue, weakness, and blurred vision. Individuals with diabetes or insulin-related conditions need to manage their blood sugar levels diligently.

Brain tumour

Brain tumours, whether benign or malignant, can cause symptoms that mimic a stroke. Depending on the location of the tumour, symptoms can include headaches, vision problems, nausea, vomiting, and difficulty with speech or thinking. Unlike strokes, which occur suddenly, brain tumour symptoms usually develop gradually and worsen over time as the tumour grows.

Bell’s palsy

Bell’s palsy is a condition that causes sudden weakness in the muscles on one side of the face. It’s the most common cause of temporary facial paralysis. It can result in a drooping eyebrow and mouth, difficulty closing an eye and drooling from one side of the face.

Unlike a stroke, Bell’s palsy typically affects the entire side of the face, including the forehead, while stroke-related facial weakness usually involves the lower face and spares the forehead. Also, similar to other stroke mimics, Bell’s palsy comes on slowly, over hours or days. Whereas a stroke is sudden.

It’s important to note that while these conditions can cause stroke-like symptoms, they require different treatments. Misdiagnosis can lead to unnecessary treatments or delays in appropriate care. There is a risk that misdiagnosis and inadvertent treatment may lead to serious injury.

However, “the overall benefit is greater than the risk of bleeding in the setting of a stroke mimic,” says Dr Deepak Gulati, a neurologist who specialises in treating stroke patients at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. That’s especially true, he adds, “given the fact that stroke is a leading cause of disability and fifth common cause of death”.

In other words: with stroke mimics, it’s best to err on the side of caution, particularly in older people, since age is a risk factor for stroke.

Were you aware of these health conditions that mimic stroke symptoms? Are you aware of all the symptoms of a stroke? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: How to lower your stroke risk at every age

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.
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