This summer, my entire family gathered to celebrate my mother's ninetieth birthday. The event didn't go as planned. The day before her birthday, just as we all sat down for lunch, Mum had a stroke. Even as a doctor, I'd never actually been present when someone had a stroke before. As an A&E/ER doctor, you see people right after a stroke, not during the actual process. Yet understanding that someone's 'funny turn' is actually a stroke can lead to life-saving treatment being given in a timely manner.
What is a stroke?
More properly called a cerebro-vascular accident (CVA), a stroke is a sudden incident affecting the critical blood supply of the brain. This could be a bleed into the brain (haemorrhagic stroke) or, more commonly, a blood clot in the arteries supplying the brain (ischaemic stroke, similar to a heart attack but happening in the brain instead).
Who gets strokes?
Anyone can have a stroke. When I was a junior doctor, the youngest stroke patient we saw was only fourteen. Fortunately, she had an excellent prognosis for full recovery. But strokes occur more commonly in elderly people, diabetics, people with untreated high blood pressure and people with a prior history or family history of strokes. So when an elderly person or a diabetic has a 'funny turn,' stroke should be uppermost in your mind. Of course, a diabetic could also feel strange or get an alteration in consciousness if their blood sugar goes too low or too high. However, as we'll see, stroke has some quite specific symptoms that don't appear with a blood sugar fluctuation.
When is a stroke not a stroke?
A TIA or transient ischemic attack is like a passing stroke that doesn't cause permanent damage. However, it signals increased stroke risk. Sometimes a migraine headache can cause symptoms similar to a stroke. A person with this type of migraine is also at increased stroke risk.
How can I recognize a stroke?
Key markers that your friend, colleague or loved one is having a stroke include:
- A sudden alteration of consciousness.
- A sudden change in speech, or inability to speak, or slurring of speech.
- One side of the mouth droops down.
- Person falls to the ground, or starts sliding off their chair.
- They can't move one arm, or grip is much weaker on one side, or they can't raise both arms.
What should I do?
Call 911 (or 999 in the UK). Do not give the person any food or water. Their swallowing may have been affected and they could choke. If it's really a blood sugar crisis rather than a stroke, the paramedic will know what to do. Getting your friend or loved one to hospital on time will enable appropriate treatment to be given while it has the most chance of helping.
How can Ayurveda help stroke patients?
During the acute phase of a stroke, Western medicine is the appropriate method. Once a stroke patient is out of hospital and able to take herbs or receive treatments such as oil massage or shirodhara, Ayurveda can be tremendously helpful in the ongoing process of stroke recovery. The texts of Ayurveda discuss hemiplegia or stroke paralysis under vatavyadhi (nervous system disorders due to vata). Specific herbs and therapies are outlined to help in the recovery process. A skilled and experienced Ayurvedic doctor may be able to contribute significantly to the process of stroke recovery.
How can I reduce my stroke risk?
If you have risk factors such as diabetes or a family history of strokes, you do have an increased risk of having a stroke yourself. These are known as non-modifiable risk factors. However, you can help yourself by reducing or removing modifiable risk factors like smoking, excess alcohol consuption, overwork, stress,obesity, poor diet and sedentary lifestyle. As always, an Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle suited to your prakriti (body type)can help keep you in balance and reduce the likelihood of a stroke.