Most of us are familiar with the most common symptoms of stroke: sudden weakness or numbness on one side of the body, blurred vision, slurred speech, sudden confusion or severe headache. Some people will experience more than one of these symptoms at once. And in the vast majority of cases, stroke victims have weakness on one side of their bodies. “That’s a crucial sign to be aware of,” says Dr. Chelsea Kidwell, an American Stroke Association spokeswoman.
But just as they do with heart attacks, women occasionally experience different signs and symptoms of stroke, which can prevent them from being diagnosed quickly. The National Stroke Association notes that women may also experience:
- sudden pain in their face or limbs
- sudden hiccups
- sudden shortness of breath
- sudden chest pain
- heart palpitations
“In general, women get very similar symptoms and signs of stroke as do men, but they are misdiagnosed more frequently,” says Dr. Rachel Gottesman, associate professor of neurology and epidemiology with Johns Hopkins University.
This may happen because the signs seem vague, or symptomatic of a more common condition. There’s a tendency to think, “This might be a migraine,” Gottesman says. But it’s important to take action, whether you are experiencing either a common symptom or a symptom that you’ve never experienced in the past. “Something that is different from normal or a classic sign of stroke should really trigger them to get to a hospital right away,” Kidwell says.
The sooner you get to the hospital, the sooner you can receive the one treatment that can improve your odds of a full recovery: tissue plasminogen activator, or tPA. Studies show that women are less likely than men to receive tPA, which breaks up clots that may be blocking the flow of blood to the brain.
Experts aren’t certain why women are less likely to receive tPA, but one explanation may be that women tend to be older when they have strokes. If they’ve outlived their male counterparts, as many do, that means they’re often home alone when symptoms strike. Without anyone else around to notice something wrong, these women don’t always make it to a hospital quickly enough to receive treatment.
It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of stroke, so you can call 9-1-1 immediately if you experience one. It’s also a good idea to find out where your closest certified stroke centers are located (see www.stroke.org) because only specially trained health care professionals can administer tPA, which is most effective (and safer) when given early. “Fewer people who get this tPA medicine are disabled than those who don’t,” says Gottesman.
Or as Kidwell notes, when it comes to a stroke, “time is brain.”