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Friday, August 14, 2009

Knowing risk factors, warning signs of stroke

Knowing the risk factors and recognizing warning signs are important if people want to prevent strokes or minimize the damage it can cause.

By: Ruth Nerhaugen, The Republican Eagle

Knowing the risk factors and recognizing warning signs are important if people want to prevent strokes or minimize the damage it can cause.

A stroke is a brain injury that occurs when the blood flow in the brain is interrupted. Strokes are the nation’s No. 3 killer and a leading cause of disability.

“We know what the risk factors are,” said Dr. Jack Alexander, chief medical officer at Fairview Red Wing Medical Center. If symptoms are noted, testing is available to assess an individual’s situation.

For example, he said, a patient may be worried about symptoms such as TIA — transient ischemic attacks or “mini strokes” which produce symptoms of a stroke but have no lasting effects.

“We can do a carotid artery analysis” to determine if the person is at high risk of a stroke, he said. Surgery is an option if the warning signs indicate it is needed.

The medical community has a good handle on identifying people who are at high risk of stroke, Dr. Alexander said — such as people who are diabetic, have hypertension, smoke, or experience atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular contraction of the heart rather than a steady beat, he said. “The small blood vessels in the heart can break off,” making the patient at higher risk. Physicians often prescribe blood thinners to lower that risk, he said. “It’s quite effective with relatively little impact on your life.”

People should know those risk factors and what they can do about them, such as work to reduce high cholesterol or lower blood pressure, he said.

“We’re much more aggressive in treating strokes when they occur,” he added. The first three-hour period is critical. Clot-dissolving medication can be administered during that time period which can reverse any damage, Alexander said — even if there are severe symptoms such as paralysis or aphasia.

“The critical thing is the countdown. Know the signs” that a stroke is occurring and act quickly, he stressed.

Stroke survivors

Fairview provides rehabilitation services to people who have had strokes, including physical, occupational and speech therapy.

In addition, a stroke support group is available locally. It is sponsored by the Red Wing Area Seniors and Fairview Red Wing Medical Center.

Monthly meetings of the support group are open to all stroke survivors, their friends, family and caregivers. People talk about their difficulties and their recoveries as they share stories about living after a stroke.

“Understanding is one of the biggest difficulties stroke survivors face,” Fairview officials said. Other difficulties may include personality change, impaired communication or some paralysis. Many difficulties can be overcome with therapy, but some changes are permanent and the stroke survivors and their families must adapt.

“Our brains don’t work the same way they used to,” said one survivor. Another said, “What you used to be able to do; now you can only dream about.” Yet another, “Our friends don’t understand, they treat us differently.”

Sharing coupled with encouragement and problem-solving is common at the support meetings.

Deb Howard, speech language pathologist at Fairview Red Wing Health Services, facilitates the group. “My mom had strokes and I know how it affected our family. Having a group that understands what you are going through makes a big difference,” Howard said.

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