Have you ever wondered what it may look or feel like when a person is having a stroke? A stroke can happen to anyone at any time; it will not stop to think about whether you are in the middle working, grocery shopping, or driving. Knowing what to look for can mean the difference between life and death, or the difference between saving and losing vital brain cells that help you function. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs and act quickly.
BE FAST to Recognize Stroke Symptoms
The most important thing you must do should you notice the symptoms of a stroke in yourself or someone else is to stop what you are doing and call 9-1-1. Remember, a stroke is a medical emergency and warrants immediate medical attention, even if you are not sure it’s a stroke. The 9-1-1 operator you call and the paramedics who show up will not be upset with you for calling, even if it ends up being a false alarm - they would rather be safe than sorry!
One of the easiest ways to remember the signs and symptoms of a stroke is to think: BE FAST.
B - Balance
E - Eyes
F - Face
A - Arm
S - Speech
T - Time
Now let’s break these down one by one to help each one stand out in your mind.
This refers to new unsteadiness or difficulty staying upright and in control of your body’s position. Some people may experience dizziness that makes them feel “weird” or like they can’t quite stand up or sit up correctly. Some feel as though they can’t quite get a solid footing, or that their bodies aren’t reacting quickly enough with a change in position or movement. Sometimes muscles just can’t quite coordinate or work right while standing, sitting, or walking.
This symptom may feel like someone is sweeping the rug out from beneath you, or that you are stepping off of a boat and can’t find equilibrium quickly enough. Often, people feel the need to grasp at other objects, lean against something, or sit down to help with the feeling of falling. It is easy to pass these strange feelings off with thoughts like, “I’m just tired from things happening in my life, so this must be my body’s response,” or “maybe I didn’t drink enough water or eat enough breakfast.” DON’T ignore your body when it doesn’t feel right! A change in balance could mean a stroke - call 9-1-1.
If you suddenly have a change in your vision, this is a reason to take action by getting yourself checked out right away. This symptom is not referring to the gradual changes that take place as we age, rather sudden changes that have no obvious explanation. A change in vision or a change in one or both eyes can mean different things for each person. You may experience sudden blurriness, double vision, difficulty reading, or confusion with written words. This symptom may be more of a dizziness-related feeling, with the world spinning around you. When in doubt, check it out!
Sometimes when a person is experiencing the start of a stroke, his or her face may become asymmetrical or uneven. Often, one side of the face will become numb, tingly, or “droopy.” A quick and effective way to check for this is to try to smile a big smile while looking in the mirror (or if you suspect someone else is experiencing a stroke, ask that person to smile while you observe). If the smile is noticeably uneven from one side to the other, get help. Another quick check is to try to shut both eyes as tightly as you can and have someone check to see if one eye is not closing as firmly as the other. Remember, some faces are a bit asymmetrical to start with - this symptom refers to something that is brand new for that person.
Sudden weakness, numbness, tingling, or even paralysis of a body part is one sign that a stroke may be happening. Often this is most noticeable on one side of the body (for example, the right arm and leg). A quick check for this is raising both arms at the same time; if one arm drops down or can’t be moved to the same height as the other, get checked out quickly. Remember that each person experiences a stroke differently: while one person may have weakness or a “strange” feeling in her left arm and leg, another may have more obvious paralysis, and only in his right arm. If something is different or doesn’t feel right, get it checked by a doctor right away.
When a person suddenly has trouble talking or understanding a conversation, it can indicate the beginning of a stroke. This symptom can also vary from person to person, and may look or sound like confusion, slurred speech, using incorrect words in a sentence, being hard to understand while having a conversation, or not being able to speak at all. A quick check for this is to ask the person to repeat a simple sentence. If he or she can’t repeat 5-6 words clearly, correctly, or in the right order, get help.
Time to Call 911!
The most important part about recognizing the signs and symptoms of a stroke is knowing that “time is brain.” The faster a person receives medical help, the faster he or she can be evaluated and treated. Even if the signs or symptoms that were noticed seem to be going away, call 9-1-1 and get help right away. Once a stroke starts, a part of the brain is being starved of oxygen and brain cells are starting to die. The longer this lasts, the longer that part of the brain is being injured, and the greater the effects to the rest of the body as a result.
Less Common Stroke Symptoms
Although not a part of the BE FAST acronym, some strokes present as a sudden, severe headache that has no obvious cause. Often, this is described as “the worst headache of my life”. Don't ignore serious symptoms that seem to come out of nowhere! Your body is telling you that something is wrong.
Responding to a Stroke
If you think you are having a stroke, or that someone near you is having a stroke, first call 9-1-1 immediately. Tell the operator that you are thinking stroke, and let the emergency personnel handle the rest. Do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital, because there’s no way to tell what other symptoms you may experience on the way or how safe you will be. If you are helping someone else who may be having a stroke, make sure the person is safe, (lying down on the floor to prevent falling!) that you are nearby watching for new symptoms, and that the paramedics can get to you easily. Strokes are scary, but knowing when one may be happening and what to do about it is powerful and important for saving a life.
American Stroke Association
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. Reliance on any information provided by the NEOFECT website is solely at your own risk.
- Natalie Miller, OTR/LNatalie is an occupational therapist and health writer based out of Richmond, VA. Natalie recently pivoted into the pediatric setting after spending eleven years working in adult neurorehabilitation.