How to recognise a stroke

Immediate medical attention after a stroke can save lives and reduce the risk of permanent brain injury. But would you know how to recognise a stroke and what to do next?

A stroke (medical name cerebrovascular accident or CVA) is a potentially life-threatening event in which part of the brain is deprived of oxygen. This deprivation can result from a blood clot that blocks blood vessels (ischaemic stroke) or from a sudden haemorrhage in the brain that causes intracranial pressure (haemorrhagic stroke). Effects will last for at least 24 hours – effects of shorter duration are regarded as signs of transient ischaemic attacks (TIA) (see below). Younger men are more likely than younger women to suffer a stroke; the incidence is roughly equal in older people.

What are the outer signs?
These vary from patient to patient, but can include:

  • sudden confusion
  • sudden loss of balance/co-ordination
  • sudden apparent problems speaking or understanding language
  • sudden trouble walking.

If in doubt, ask the person to:

  • smile
  • talk
  • raise both arms

If they are unable to do just one of these things – get immediate help.

Another useful way to remember the above is:

Face – Check their face.   Has their mouth drooped?
Arms – Can they lift both arms?
Speech – Is their speech slurred? Do they understand you?
Time  – Is critical. If you see any of these signs call 000 straight away.

Click NEXT to find out what symptoms a sufferer might report and how to create an action plan

What symptoms might a sufferer report?
These can vary enormously from patient to patient, but might include:

  • sudden numbness in face, arms or legs
  • sudden reduced vision in one or both eyes
  • sudden severe headache
  • sudden dizziness
  • sudden paralysis of part of the body.


Action plan

If you have the signs/symptoms:
Call an ambulance on 000 immediately you feel a problem arising. One of the symptoms of a stroke is confusion, so don’t wait too long or you will lose the ability to act. Do not drive yourself to hospital. Once you have made the call, lie down and wait. Do not take aspirin without medical assessment in case it is a haemorrhagic stroke.

If someone else has the signs/symptoms:
Call an ambulance on 000 or, if that is not possible, transport the patient to the nearest medical facility (see above). Lie the patient down and keep him/her comfortable and calm; stay calm yourself and this will reassure them. Do not give aspirin without medical assessment in case it is a haemorrhagic stroke.

Early warning signs
Many people will experience one or more TIAs – often called ‘mini-strokes’ – prior to a major stroke. These often mimic a mild stroke but their duration is much shorter and effects are minimal.

Some cause brain damage, and many are a warning, so see your doctor if you suspect you have had one. High blood pressure should also be acted upon.

Predisposing factors

  • family history of cardio-vascular disease
  • hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • obesity
  • smoking
  • diabetes
  • long-term depression.


What is the prognosis?

Lost time is lost brain. The earlier you get help, the better the outcome. Some neurologists claim that if they can treat a stroke victim within three hours of the event, they can reverse all damage completely. The treatment mode will depend on the cause, but might include clot-busting drugs or blood thinners and, in some cases, surgery.

For further information on reducing the risk of a stroke, recognising a stroke, what treatment is available and post-stroke support, visit the National Stroke Foundation.

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