Skip main navigation

Military Health System

Clear Your Browser Cache

This website has recently undergone changes. Users finding unexpected concerns may care to clear their browser's cache to ensure a seamless experience.

Signs and symptoms of a stroke, and what to do about them

Image of Infographic about the sign of a stroke. If you see the signs in yourself or someone else, please call 9-1-1 so they can get the proper treatment. You could save a life in doing so (Photo by: Rebecca Westfall, U.S. Army Medical Command).

The most important factor to keep in mind during a stroke is not wasting time, say neurological specialists. “Time is brain,” is the common medical adage, because every second counts to get the best possible outcome.

According to Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Michael Crimmins, chief of interventional neuroradiology and stroke medical director at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, humans lose about 1 million brain cells per minute during a stroke. He recommends getting to a hospital right away, preferably by ambulance, “because they can bypass triage and get you immediate medical attention.”

A stroke can cause lasting brain damage, long-term disability, or even death, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Crimmins explained strokes are the No. 1 leading cause of preventable disability in the United States and among the top 10 causes of death for men and women in the country.

They can occur from two scenarios:

“There are ischemic strokes, where a blood clot stops the blood from flowing into the blood vessels of the brain,” said Crimmins. “And there are hemorrhagic – or bleeding – strokes, where a blood vessel tears or ruptures, causing bleeding into the brain.”

In both cases, the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain is interrupted.

“When you lack blood flow to the brain for long enough, the neurons – the brain cells – start to die,” said Crimmins. “The brain and the neurons control our ability to use our bodies, so once they die it’s very difficult to recover that function, especially as we get older.”

These include functions like movement, breathing, and digestion; memory storage; and thoughts, emotions, and language, according to the CDC.

Ischemic strokes, noted Crimmins, are what most people think about when they think about stroke. Those can be caused by a variety of factors.

“The most common cause is frequently due to an embolism, a clot that forms in the heart, which the heart then pumps into the brain,” he said. “Other people have carotid artery disease and others have narrowing, or atherosclerosis, of the blood vessels of the brain itself, so any one of those can stop blood from flowing into the brain.”

And while there are risk factors that elevate the potential for suffering a stroke, having one often happens out of the blue, with patients not realizing they’re having a stroke “until they do,” he said.

“In that case, the onset of symptoms is very quick – they go from having no symptoms one minute to having an inability to speak or move a part of their body the next.”

Risk factors can be genetic and include hypertension, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, smoking, and the use of illegal drugs, such as cocaine. But, according to Crimmins, they’re treatable.

“Sometimes, we can work on those with medication, by adjusting the patient’s diet, or helping them make other lifestyle changes to reduce inflammation,” he said. “If you have concerns over some other risk factors, it would be smart to try and maximize your health, like getting these medical conditions under control to prevent strokes and the potential for dementia down the road.”

At a military medical treatment facility, neurologists like Crimmins conduct a series of tests to identify the type of stroke a patient is having before treating it.

“We can potentially give clot-busting medication or even do a surgical removal of a clot by accessing the artery in the leg and going up to do an extraction,” he said.

The medication works by dissolving the clot and improving the blood flow to the part of the brain being deprived of blood and oxygen, noted Crimmins.

“For severe strokes, surgical intervention has been found to be the most helpful way to treat somebody with a severe stroke,” he said.

Either way, the most important takeaway is getting immediate attention. “We know that the longer you wait the less likely you are to have a good outcome after a stroke,” said Crimmins.

Below are some important facts about strokes:

  1. Don’t waste time – act F.A.S.T. to get medical attention as soon as you notice symptoms of a stroke.
  2. Men and women present the same symptoms of strokes.
  3. Depending on which blood vessel is closed off, symptoms can include any change in typical brain function: Slurred speech or a change in speech, such as a “word salad” in which words don’t seem like they go together and are not what a person means; weakness on the arm, face, or leg; double or blurry vision; severe vertigo or dizziness, severe headache.
  4. It’s possible to have a stroke and not even know it: Strokes can be asymptomatic, or silent, and are only discovered as scar tissue on the brain once people see their doctor for what they think are memory problems or headaches.
  5. Untreated strokes can lead to dementia due to a chronic loss in mental faculties.
  6. You can help reduce your risk of stroke by maintaining healthy living habits and controlling certain medical conditions.
  7. Once you have a stroke, you’re at higher risk of having another stroke soon.
  8. Strokes occur more frequently in the people between the ages of 60-80. However, there are a fair number of younger people who have strokes, including service members, due to irregular heart rhythm or a tear in the blood vessels, called a dissection.

You also may be interested in...

Publication
Feb 23, 2024

Assessment and Management of Dizziness and Visual Disturbances Following Concussion/Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

.PDF | 1.03 MB

This clinical recommendation provides medical staff with a single, comprehensive reference for the assessment and management of dizziness and visual disturbances following mild TBI/concussion. Dizziness and visual disturbances often present with overlapping symptoms and should prompt a provider to perform a visual and dizziness—or vestibular—assessment.

Publication
Feb 23, 2024

Progressive Return to Activity: Primary Care for Acute Concussion Management

.PDF | 472.50 KB

This clinical recommendation is an evidence-based return to activity protocol for primary care managers and concussion/traumatic brain injury clinic providers. The PRA is a six-step approach that begins after the provider performs the MACE 2 (Military Acute Concussion Evaluation 2) and the patient is diagnosed with a concussion, also known as a mild TBI.

Report
Feb 22, 2024

2023 DOD Worldwide Numbers for TBI

.PDF | 1010.28 KB

TBICoE is the Defense Department’s office of responsibility for tracking traumatic brain injury data in the U.S. military. Here you’ll find data on the number of active-duty service members—anywhere U.S. forces are located—with a first-time TBI diagnosis in calendar year 2023. The data is also broken down by each branch of the armed services.

Article Around MHS
Feb 20, 2024

Forward Deployable Preventative Medical Unit Enhances Combat Effectiveness with Comprehensive Weapons and Threat Recognition Training

Forward Deployable Preventative Medical Unit Six member trains in weapons proficiency during a specialized course designed to enhance readiness for diverse deployments on Feb. 8, 2024. The training was tailored for the unit’s unique mission to ensure service members are prepared for their upcoming deployments. (U.S. Navy photo by Desmond Martin)

The Forward Deployable Preventative Medical Unit participated in a first-ever weapons and threat recognition training course, specifically designed and tailored for the unit’s unique mission. FDPMU’s are rapidly deployable and mobile units that support force health protection around the globe.

Calendar Event
Feb 16, 2024

Virtual Reality, "Walk and Talk" Therapy, and Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories: How Novel Interventions Can Improve the Care of Post-traumatic Stress

A NICOE educational offering with a guest speaker on Virtual Reality, "Walk and Talk" Therapy, and Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories - part of 2024 BIAM event lineup.

Topic
Feb 8, 2024

Health Readiness & Combat Support

The Defense Health Agency provides support for operating forces engaged in planning for, or conducting, military operations, including support during conflict or in the conduct of other military activities related to countering threats to U.S. national security. Among DHA’s most important combat support responsibilities is its work to increase ...

Infographic
Feb 8, 2024

Brain Injury Awareness Month: Infographic

Brain Injury Awareness Month infographic, visit health.mil/BIAMonth.

Even a mild traumatic brain injury can impact mission readiness and the ability to deploy. #BeABrainWarrior by understanding the signs and symptoms of TBI and knowing when to seek care. TBI is treatable and recovery is possible. https://health.mil/BIAMonth #BIAMonth

Article Around MHS
Feb 5, 2024

U.S. Army Medical Research & Development Command Supports Development of Blast Injury Prevention Standard

 Researchers from the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research used data collected during live fire training exercises to create accurate 3D simulations of blast overpressure exposures on virtual weapons crews to help training range managers, range safety officers and instructors position personnel to minimize their exposure to shock waves created by the firing of heavy weapons. The color coding indicates the blast pressure intensity as the wave expands and dissipates.

A new tool being developed by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command’s DOD Blast Injury Research Coordinating Office will help Service Members protect themselves from the effects of high-pressure shock waves created by heavy weapons when they are fired during training.

Video
Jan 31, 2024

Be a Brain Warrior: Protect. Treat. Optimize.

Be a Brain Warrior: Protect. Treat. Optimize.

The Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence is championing the theme 'Be a Brain Warrior: Protect, Treat, Optimize' during Brain Injury Awareness Month. The theme showcases the idea that service members, veterans, healthcare providers, caregivers, family members, and advocates can be warriors for brain health. Visit health.mil/BIAMonth to learn more.

Video
Jan 29, 2024

TBI Testimonials: Dalton Mask

TBI Testimonials: Dalton Mask

Dalton was on his way to his biggest challenge in his military career: Army Ranger School. He had been training for several months, running 20 miles per week, and working out three times a day. As he was setting up a TV in his room, he had a seizure and fell, hitting his head on the side of his bed — resulting in a concussion, or a mild traumatic ...

Video
Jan 29, 2024

TBI Testimonials: Roxana Delgado & Victor Medina

TBI Testimonials: Roxana Delgado & Victor Medina

While he was deployed, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Victor Medina was in a vehicle that was hit by an explosive device. He sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that severely impaired some of his physical functions and ability to speak. Medina’s wife, Roxana Delgado, continued her pursuit of a Ph.D. in health sciences and became his caregiver. As ...

Skip subpage navigation
Refine your search
Last Updated: July 11, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on X Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery