Many people who watched US TV reporter Serene Branson suffer what appeared to be a stroke while covering the Grammy awards last Sunday were no doubt relieved to hear her troubles were apparently caused by a severe migraine headache.
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Doctors at the University of California, Los Angeles, who performed a brain scan and blood work on Branson, said she suffered a type of migraine - often called a complex or complicated migraine - that can mimic symptoms of a stroke, the Associated Press reported.
Dr Ralph L. Sacco, president of the American Heart Association and chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, explained that "a complicated migraine can often masquerade as a stroke or TIA (transient ischemic attack, sometimes called a mini-stroke)."
The symptoms can look just like a stroke, Sacco said, including loss of vision, blurry vision, paralysis on one side of the body, trouble speaking and trouble walking. "All kinds of things we associate with a TIA or stroke can be part of a complicated migraine," he said.
Assume it's a stroke
For people whose first experience with a migraine is a complex migraine, Sacco advises that they assume it is a stroke, however.
"If people have these classic symptoms, we should treat them as the emergency we think they are, which is a possible stroke," he said.
Stroke patients should be taken immediately to a hospital where a potentially life-saving, clot-busting drug known as tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) can be administered.
According to Sacco, a complex or complicated migraine is caused by an electrical malfunction in the brain, which may be triggered by certain chemicals that produce the symptoms. Stroke, however, is caused by restricted blood flow to the brain, he noted.
"A migraine is not just a headache. It's a complicated brain event," UCLA neurologist Dr Andrew Charles, who examined Branson, told the AP.
Migraines and trouble talking
Branson felt numbness on the right side of her face that affected her speech, Charles told the news service. "She was actually having the headache while she was having these other symptoms," he said.
Branson said that, while waiting to go on air, she noticed that the words on her notes were blurry and her "thoughts were not forming the way they normally do," the AP reported.
"As soon as I opened my mouth I knew something was wrong," she said. "I was having trouble remembering the word for Grammy. I knew what I wanted to say, but I didn't have the words to say it."
Another migraine expert, Dr Timothy Smith, who runs a headache clinic in St. Louis, noted that "complicated migraines are not very common."
The big difference between a stroke and a complicated migraine is that the effects of the migraine are completely reversible, he said.
"Symptoms can last a few minutes for close to an hour," Smith said. "If it goes on longer than an hour, that's the sign of a more complex problem," he added.
After symptoms of a complicated migraine disappear, the patient is left with the headache, Smith said.
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