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Stroke - What It Is and What Are the Symptoms

The American Academy of Neurology is trying to raise awareness about strokes, a potential killer that claims 160,000 lives annually in the United States, News 2's Paul Moniz reports.

The academy has launched public service announcements to drive the point that the third leading cause of death in America has symptoms which are routinely ignored until it is too late, a frightening reality recently illustrated by former president Gerald Ford's strokes.

In some cases, stroke symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions: the doctors who treated Gerald Ford initially thought he had a sinus infection. They treated him with antibiotics and sent him home.

Dr. Alan Segal is a neurologist who treats strokes at New York's Weill Cornell Medical Center. According to Dr. Segal, people often ignore symptoms instead of seeking medical attention. By that time, they could have brain damage or injury which shows up on an MRI.

"Strokes are brain emergencies," Dr. Segal explains. "A stroke is like a heart attack. Sometimes they go to sleep and hope it's better in the morning."

Blocked blood vessels cause 80 percent of strokes. Ruptured blood vessels cause the other 20 percent.

Most people do not recognize the range of stroke symptoms, which include a sudden numbness of the face, arm or leg, usually on one side of the body; confusion; trouble speaking; difficulty walking; dizziness; loss of balance and severe headaches with no known cause.

There are simple things you can do to minimize your susceptibility to strokes.

Watch your diet. Obesity is a risk factor, as is high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

If you smoke, quit.

Ask your doctor about getting an ultrasound of the carotid artery in your neck which can detect narrowing before you have a stroke. However, that's only a predictor in about 20 percent of stroke patients.

A clot-busting medication, called TPA, can reverse a stroke's injury to the brain but it must be administered within three hours of the stroke to be effective.

Remember, stroke is a brain attack so time is crucial. Call 911 of you exhibit any stroke-like symptoms.

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