When dizzy spells are an early warning sign to stroke
About 150,000 Britons have a stroke each year
Jim Marco was driving to work one morning when suddenly everything went dark — for 30 seconds he could see nothing and he was terrified he’d gone blind.
Even when his vision gradually returned, he was seeing double.
‘The world was spinning,’ says Jim, now 66, a retired delivery driver from Ratby in Leicestershire.
‘I felt shaky and unwell.’
His wife Gillian, who was with him,
drove them straight home and called the GP, who diagnosed vertigo, a
dizziness commonly caused by a problem with the balance mechanisms in
the inner ear.
But he was wrong. In fact, Jim had suffered a mini stroke, where a blood clot temporarily blocks blood flow to the brain.
is a warning that the brain is not getting enough blood — and one in
four people who have a mini stroke go on to have a full-blown stroke,
often within 72 hours.
mini stroke, a blood clot passes through the brain, meaning symptoms
are temporary. In a full stroke there is a complete blockage, meaning
brain cells start to die, often with devastating results.
But Jim had little idea of the risks. His GP told him to rest in bed and within a few days he started to feel better.
Then, as he got ready to go out with friends the following Saturday night, he suddenly felt dizzy again.
‘It was as though I was tipsy, but I’d hardly drunk a thing,’ he says.
The next morning, he collapsed on the bathroom floor — and when he came to seconds later, he was paralysed from the waist down.
At the hospital, doctors took a computerised tomography scan and told Jim he’d had not one but several mini strokes (also known as transient ischaemic attacks).
‘Gillian and I were shocked,’ says Jim. ‘I’d thought only very elderly people had strokes.
'I was only 59 and hadn’t even had the classic signs of stroke — my speech was fine and there was no face or arm weakness, just that feeling of being unwell.’
Four days later, while he was still in hospital, Jim had a massive stroke that left him unable to speak or move anything other than his eyes.
He spent the next six months recovering in hospital.
His movement and speech gradually returned, but today he still has weakness on his left side and balance problems.
About 150,000 Britons have a stroke each year, and the condition causes 53,000 deaths annually.
A stroke happens when a blood clot forms in another part of the body and moves to the brain and causes a blockage.
What is less well known is that about 50,000 people a year have mini or mild strokes.
Warning signs can include a temporary loss of vision, because a blood clot is passing through the retina
Many recognise the obvious and well-publicised symptoms of stroke, such as weakness down one side of the face, tingling in one arm and slurring of speech.
But there are other, more subtle signs, says Dr Sharlin Ahmed, research liaison officer at charity The Stroke Association.
‘Warning signs can include a temporary loss of vision, because a blood clot is passing through the retina.
‘But because symptoms are temporary, people often ignore a mini stroke. Yet it is an emergency, and people need to seek help.
‘When there are other risk factors, including high-blood pressure and smoking, people need to see a doctor much sooner, because temporary loss of sight, feelings of dizziness and even a strange taste in the mouth could be a warning,’ says Dr Ahmed.
Dr Raj Kumar, consultant physician at the Stroke Unit at Aintree University Hospital, adds: ‘We see people in their 50s, 40s and even 30s who have dismissed a mini stroke as a trapped nerve or too much to drink the night before when they’re really warning signs of a devastating stroke.
‘Even health professionals sometimes miss the more subtle mini strokes, those that involve balance and vision, but not the classic signs of stroke.
‘More people need to be aware and go to a doctor or hospital when they experience symptoms they know aren’t right for them. They can then be sent for a brain scan.’
A mini stroke won’t do any lasting damage, but diagnosing it can help prevent a more serious stroke.
‘If we spotted the warning signs sooner, we could prevent 10,000 strokes a year in this country,’ says Dr Ahmed.
Doctors can prescribe medication to reduce blood pressure and may offer blood-thinning drugs.
Patients can also be encouraged to eat and exercise more healthily, and reduce salt intake.
Robert Washbrook, 62, a factory inspector from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, is another patient who knows from bitter experience the importance of spotting a mini stroke.
He was working in his garden in May 2005 when suddenly he felt sweaty and clammy.
There was a strange tangy taste in his mouth, which he thought was pollen so he went inside to drink some water.
Then he felt tingling down his left arm and leg, but as this subsided over the next day or two, he didn’t seek help.
When the symptoms came back two days later, doctors diagnosed a mini stroke, and sent him home with blood- thinning medication and a referral for a brain scan.
But it was too late. Within a week, Robert had a full stroke that left him drifting in and out of consciousness for days.
He thinks failing to act on the first mini stroke was to blame.
‘Now I know there are different warning signs of stroke, I’d like to see people acting on them more quickly,’ he says.
He has recovered almost entirely — his treatment included classes to help him recover his speech — though he still has weakness down his left side.
Others have been luckier. When nurse Maria McDonald, 49, from Liverpool, lost the sight in her left eye for a few minutes four times in a fortnight, she blamed high blood pressure.
But her GP referred her to Dr Kumar at Aintree, who told her she’d had four mini strokes.
‘I was gobsmacked — I’d watched the TV campaigns about the signs of stroke, but I’d had none of them,’ says Maria.
‘A massive stroke could have left me dead or disabled.’
Dr Kumar put Maria on blood-thinning medication that day, increased her blood pressure medication and sent her for a scan that showed the narrowing.
Within two weeks, she had life-saving surgery to clear a dangerously furred-up carotid (main) artery in her neck, after doctors explained bits of the plaques could break into clots and pass to her brain.
Meanwhile, Jim, who is still living with the after-effects of his stroke, wonders if it could have been avoided in the first place.
‘Too many GPs have been ignorant of all the symptoms of strokes and what to expect,’ he says.
‘Now I want to warn people: don’t ignore the symptoms — go straight to hospital, rather than risk a devastating stroke.’
THE DANGER SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR…
As well as the classic signs of stroke (such as facial weakness, arm weakness or speech problems), the following could be a sign of a mini stroke.
If you suffer one or more of these, contact a doctor urgently:
Weakness, numbness, clumsiness or pins and needles on one side of the body, or paralysis in an arm or leg.Loss of or blurred vision.Sudden memory loss or confusion.Loss of balance.
Though the symptoms could be due to other conditions, including low blood sugar, migraine or epileptic seizure, the sooner the symptoms are investigated the more likely it is that a doctor will be able to say if it was a mini stroke or not.
Source: The Stroke Association
The Stroke Association is launching its 20th annual Life After Stroke Awards to honour remarkable stroke survivors.