According to the World Stroke Organisation one in six people will have a stroke in their lifetime. That’s more than 8 million South Africans.
Stroke is the third biggest cause of death in our country and a leading cause of adult disability. The effects of stroke can be devastating and include brain damage which manifests as weakness or paralysis, sensory disturbances, pain, speech problems and memory and emotional disturbances.
"Around 240 South Africans have a stroke every single day – which amounts to 10 people suffering a stroke every hour. Of those, 60 people die daily. This means the majority survive the stroke, but may be left with residual disabilities.
Many people believe that stroke only happens later in life, but in fact it can also occur in younger people, including children," says Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.
Read: Stroke is a lead killer in South Africa
What exactly is a stroke?
The Heart and Stroke Foundation of SA explains that a stroke, also known as a cerebrovascular accident (CVA), occurs when the blood flow to the brain is interrupted. This could either happen when a blood vessel to the brain ruptures, causing bleeding, or becomes blocked by a blood clot.
The affected brain cells then start to die because of a lack of oxygen and other nutrients. The severity of a stroke varies from a passing weakness or tingling in a limb to a profound paralysis, coma or death.
Save a life - remember the FAST rule
But, you and your loved ones need not suffer permanent disability if you act fast. Knowing what to look out for and how to react, particularly in the first three hours after a stroke, can save a life and prevent brain damage.
Face: ask the person to show their teeth or smile and see if one side of the face droops or does not move as well as the other.
Arms: ask the person to lift both arms up and keep them up and see if one arm does not move or drifts downward when extended.
Speech: ask the person to repeat a short sentence (e.g. “it is a sunny day in Cape Town”) and see if the person uses the correct words without slurring.
Time: make a careful note of the time of onset of symptoms and call for help urgently if you spot any one of these signs. (See important emergency numbers below.)
Medical help is most important within the first few hours after a stroke: remember that time lost is brain function lost. The faster you get the affected person to a hospital, the better their chances of survival and recovery - you could save a life.
“It’s very important to note what time the symptoms first appeared, as some people whose strokes are a result of blood clots may benefit from treatment that can dissolve the blood clot, but this type of treatment (tissue plasminogen activator, sometimes called 'clot-buster treatment') must be given within three hours of onset of stroke symptoms.
Even those patients who are not suitable for this type of treatment benefit from being assessed and treated urgently in order to minimise the complications that can follow a stroke," says Professor Alan Bryer, Head of the Stroke Unit at Groote Schuur Hospital and the University of Cape Town.
Stroke symptoms and warning signs
Learn the warning signs of stroke, then pass them on - tell a friend, or e-mail them, Tweet them, or post them on Facebook. If each person spreads the message, "you only have three hours" to three people, perhaps together we can halt the rise of tragic deaths and disabilities from stroke.
You may be having a stroke if you suddenly experience one or more of these symptoms:
• Sudden numbness or weakness especially on one side of the body;
• Sudden loss of speech, trouble speaking or understanding language;
• Sudden loss of vision or trouble seeing in one or both eyes, or having double vision;
• Sudden trouble walking, loss of balance or dizziness;
• Sudden severe headache with no cause.
You can reduce your risk of stroke by properly treating and controlling conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat) and diabetes.
Hypertension (high blood pressure) is the leading cause of stroke, with 6.3 million South Africans affected.
Most strokes can be prevented, and blood pressure lowered, by effective treatment and making wise lifestyle choices such as: maintaining a healthy weight, stopping smoking, cutting back on alcohol, eating well (cut down on salt and increase fruit and vegetable intake) and exercising.
Did you know:
• Every two seconds, someone in the world suffers a stroke;
• Every six seconds, someone dies of a stroke;
• Every six seconds, someone’s quality of life will forever be changed – they will be permanently physically disabled due to stroke.
• Black people are more sensitive to salt (they don't excrete it as well) and are thus at a higher risk of stroke.
Of the 240 people affected in South Africa each day by stroke, a quarter don’t survive. You and your loved ones do not need to be a statistic. Reduce your risk of stroke today, and be ready to spot the signs in others, and act fast.
Read: Rehabilitation after a stroke
Save these emergency numbers
Save these essential emergency numbers in your phone and stick them up in a prominent place at home:
- State ambulance service: 10177 (from your landline) or 112 (from a mobile phone)
- ER24 ambulance: 084 124
- Life ambulance: 0860 532 532
- Netcare ambulance: 082 911
*Call all the numbers, as the closest vehicle from each service will be dispatched, and the one that reaches you first will assist*
Know if you are at risk of a stroke
Stroke - what to do in an emergency
Image: Photo of woman who just had a stroke, from Shutterstock