April 27, 2010
Stroke: Not Just a Man’s Disease
By Dr. Fredrick Phillips, Medical Director of Stroke Rehabilitation
Walton Rehabilitation Health System
Augusta, GA—In the United States, 1.4 million more women than men are living with the effects of stroke, according to the American Stroke Association.
In fact, every year 55,000 more women than men have a stroke, and twice as many women die of stroke than breast cancer. Locally, Walton treats nearly twice as many women as men for stroke rehabilitation.
These numbers emphasize that much like heart disease, stroke can no longer be described as just a man’s disease. Particularly here in Georgia, which sits at the buckle of the “Stroke Belt”—a band of 11 Southeastern states where the risk of stroke is higher than average—it’s important that both men and women educate themselves about how to prevent stroke and how to identify stroke symptoms, particularly since there is only a three-hour window for acute therapies. In addition, it’s important that families are aware that with the appropriate training and help, stroke survivors can continue to live fulfilling and independent lives.
Although risk factors for men and women are basically the same, including a family history of stroke, high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes, heart disease and high red blood cell count, some additional risk factors affect only women.
For example, a woman's risk of stroke increases during pregnancy when her blood pressure may go up. A woman who has migraines also has an increased risk. Use of oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy during menopause, as well as extra belly fat, are other risk factors unique in women.
To help reduce risk in both men and women:
- If your blood pressure is high, talk to your doctor about how to reduce it
- Quit smoking and avoid exposure to second-hand smoke
- If you have diabetes, keep it under control with diet and prescribed medications
- Reduce your risk of heart disease by reducing high blood levels of cholesterol and avoiding saturated fats
- Keep physically active. A recent study published in Stroke, the journal of the American Heart Association, found that women in particular can significantly lower their risk of stroke through moderate aerobic exercise (brisk walking) at least two hours a week.
- Reduce excess weight or maintain a healthy weight
- Moderate use of alcohol
Reducing risk is the first step, but awareness of the symptoms of stroke can help those who suffer strokes get help quickly, which is vital as the clot-busting drug, tPA, can only be administered within three hours of the onset of stroke. If given within this small time window, tPA can significantly reduce the long-term effects of stroke.
There are certain symptoms common in both men and women:
- Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg—especially on one side of the body
- Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
- Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Sudden severe headache with no known cause
But women in particular may experience atypical symptoms, including:
- Sudden face and limb pain
- Sudden hiccups
- Sudden nausea
- Sudden general weakness
- Sudden chest pain
- Sudden shortness of breath
- Sudden palpitations
- Sudden onset of abdominal pain
Remember, as soon as a stroke happens, the clock starts ticking, so if you or someone you love experiences any of these sudden symptoms of stroke, call 911 immediately.
According to the Hazel K. Goddess Fund for stroke research in women, 31 percent of female stroke survivors will need help caring for themselves, 20 percent will need help walking, and 71 percent will have an impaired ability to work. Along with knowing the symptoms of stroke and acting quickly, rehabilitation after a stroke can help improve these statistics. While successful rehabilitation depends on the severity of the stroke and other factors, how early rehabilitation begins is also important.
With acute-care hospitals discharging patients more quickly due to changes in health care delivery, rehabilitation settings can play a bigger role in helping stroke survivors regain lost skills and become independent again since they may provide care and therapy sooner after a stroke. For example, locally at Walton Rehabilitation Health System, stroke patients can benefit from a unique rehab-ready stroke unit featuring ambulation bars, roll-in showers and wheelchair-accessible sinks so patients who are still in recovery can complete physical and occupational therapy in the comfort of their own rooms.
Therapy in the outpatient setting is also important for continued improvement and independence after discharge, as physical and occupational therapists help patients rebuild strength through land-based or aquatic therapy and learn how to do everyday tasks in a different way. Speech and language therapists can also treat patients who have difficulties with memory, comprehension, or verbal expression as a result of a stroke. Plus, innovative technology—such as using the Nintendo Wii to help engage patients in therapy; Bioness, a unique device that assists patients in regaining fine motor skills and improving gait; or Balance Master, a state-of-the-art modality that helps patients improve balance issues—are growing options for patients as more and more continue to live with the effects of stroke.
Today, more than 3.9 million American women are living with the consequences of stroke. During May, which is Stroke Awareness Month, we encourage both men and women to learn about stroke, change their lifestyles to help lower their risk and understand the options available should a stroke occur. Remember, there is hope after stroke; and awareness is the first step.
Media Contact: Danielle Wong Moores, Public Relations Specialist, 706-434-0150
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