Strokes are a lot deadlier and more disabling than they have to be. That's because so many people buy in to all the misinformation about strokes - what causes them and how they can be prevented and treated.
Here are 10 deadly myths about stroke, assembled with the help of University of Tennessee stroke expert Dr. John Beuerlein.
Myth: Stroke affects the heart
Stroke affects the brain, not the heart. It's caused by an interruption of blood flow, often when a clot breaks free from the heart and travels via the bloodstream to the brain, where it blocks an artery. This kind of stroke is often the result of atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm abnormality that can often be successfully controlled with blood thinners like warfarin.
Myth: Only old people have strokes
Strokes are more common in older people, but they strike people of all ages - even infants. Nearly 25 percent of strokes occur in people under age 65. After age 35, the risk for stroke doubles every 10 years. In young people, strokes are often associated with sickle cell disease, blood vessel abnormalities like aneurysms, or abuse of cocaine or other drugs.
Myth: Strokes can't be prevented
Stroke not preventable? Far from it. There are many avoidable risk factors for stroke, including uncontrolled high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or triglycerides, and smoking (which doubles the risk). Drug therapy and lifestyle strategies, including weight loss, can greatly reduce your risk.
Myth: Urgent care isn't needed
Stroke is a medical emergency. Call 911 at once if there are stroke symptoms, such as weakness, paralysis, double vision, vision loss, sudden difficulty speaking, unexplained dizziness, or loss
of balance. Strokes can be treated with clot-busting drugs and surgical techniques, but it's essential that they be used as soon as possible - ideally within four-and-a-half hours, says Dr. Beuerlein.
Myth: Pain is the #1 symptom
Most strokes cause little or no pain. Some people think a stroke causes "the worst headache of my life," but that description better fits another condition known as subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is bleeding between the brain and the thin tissues that surround it.
Myth: It's possible to "sleep off" symptoms
Some people who experience numbness or weakness as a result of stroke attempt to "sleep off" their symptoms. Bad idea. That squanders valuable time - and can lead to more significant disability.
Myth: Stopping medication makes sense
Some stroke patients think they can stop taking prescribed medications for stroke once they feel better. But strokes are often associated with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other problems that don't go away on their own.
Myth: Stroke isn't hereditary
Your risk for stroke is increased if a parent, grandparent, or sibling had a stroke.
Myth: Stroke recovery happens fast
Recovery from stroke can take years. In fact, says Dr. Beuerlein, it can continue for the rest of one's life - even if treatment brings rapid improvements. It's important for stroke patients to control the risk factors that caused the stroke - or a recurrence is likely.
Myth: Mini-strokes don't need treatment
Strokes are sometimes preceded by transient ischemic attacks, a.k.a. TIAs. These "mini-strokes" produce the same sorts of symptoms stroke produces but quickly go away. Yet just because symptoms go away doesn't mean TIAs should be ignored. About one in three people who have a TIA go on to suffer a full-blown stroke. If you have symptoms suggestive of stroke or TIA, call 911 at once - and get to the emergency department.
Myth: Strokes are rare
Stroke is the #3 cause of death in the U.S., claiming the lives of more than 160,000 people each year. It's also the leading cause of preventable disability. Five percent of people over age 65 have had some form of stroke.