A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Stroke and women: Know the signs

Stroke is common – affecting nearly 800,000 people in the United States annually. Stroke happens when the blood flow to part of the brain is blocked, or when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. When brain cells in the brain are deprived of blood, they die.

Men are more likely to have a stroke than women, but for women, stroke is the third leading cause of death, which is why it’s vital to know the signs and symptoms of stroke.

What puts you at risk for stroke?

Stroke is more common in men than women during the reproductive age, but after the age of 65, the risk is similar for both.

“Common risk factors for stroke are similar in men and women, including hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol. Lifestyle factors, like a poor diet, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol use, can be risk factors, but aren’t as likely to cause stroke,” said Rob Bohl, neurology nurse practitioner at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

One in five women has a stroke, which may be due to lifestyle factors women face, putting them at higher risk.

“The higher stroke risk in women may be due to pregnancy, having had preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication caused by high blood pressure, or the use of oral contraceptives and supplemental estrogen,” Bohl said.

woman with history of stroke being counseled by husband

Men are more likely to have a stroke than women, but for women, stroke is the third leading cause of death, which is why it’s vital to know the signs and symptoms of stroke.

Identifying a stroke

When someone is having a stroke, every minute counts. Quick action and treatment can help lessen the damage to the brain caused by stroke.

“Many stroke symptoms are experienced by both men and women. The most common stroke symptoms are trouble seeing in one or both eyes, sudden numbness or weakness in your face or limbs, sudden trouble speaking, confusion, sudden and severe headache and sudden dizziness or loss of balance,” said Dr. Khalid Khalid, neurologist with Marshfield Medical Center.

What’s unique to women?

Women have reported stroke symptoms not often associated with stroke in men, so it may be difficult to immediately connect them to stroke.

Unique symptoms include nausea or vomiting (usually with another symptom), seizures, pain, fainting or loss of consciousness (usually associated with a seizure) and general weakness. Less common symptoms in women include hiccups and trouble breathing.

“Cerebral venous sinus thrombosis, which occurs when a blood clot forms in the brain’s blood drainage system, is also more common in women. The condition is usually associated with the use of oral contraceptive pills and can cause headaches, nausea and vomiting,” said Dr. Khalid.  “Eclampsia – or seizures that occur during pregnancy or shortly after birth – also is a unique risk factor for stroke and may cause stroke with symptoms like headaches and seizures.”

Life after stroke

“Side effects from stroke can get better, provided they receive timely treatment and continued therapy and rehab,” Dr. Khalid said. “Main therapies include occupational, physical and speech therapy and recovery may sometimes require a short period of rehab.”

While therapy is available to help patients recover, women tend to have a harder time recovering from a stroke than men. This may be due to women often being older when they have a stroke or they are more likely to have key risk factors, like high blood pressure.

“Women are also more likely than men to delay treatment, which can cause poorer outcomes,” Dr. Khalid said.

Act F.A.S.T. if you suspect stroke

The American Stroke Association recommends the F.A.S.T. strategy for remembering common stroke symptoms and what to do if you or someone around you may be having a stroke.

F (Face): Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?

A (Arms): Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?

S (Speech): Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is the speech slurred or strange?

T (Time): Call 911 if you notice these symptoms.

“Seek treatment immediately and it’s best to call 911, rather than drive yourself. Incapacitation could occur in the car, but an ambulance can notify the local hospital to initiate care more rapidly,” Bohl said. “Time is brain with stroke, so the earlier the treatment, the better the outcome.”

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