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Is it fatigue or a stroke? one woman's story of stroke survival

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  • Written By: Allied Services Integrated Health
Is it fatigue or a stroke? one woman's story of stroke survival

“Thank goodness for my co-workers. They saw me struggling and got me in an ambulance right away.”

While at work just before the Christmas holiday, “Jane” felt some numbness in a few of her fingers and then was suddenly unable to fully speak.

“I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t get the words out, and the words that did come out were slurred. I didn’t feel any different other than my fingers, so I really couldn’t understand what was going on.”

Thankfully, Jane works in a medical facility and her co-workers were quick to respond. They got her to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with a Vertebral Artery Dissection.

The vertebral arteries are located in the back of the neck near the spine. The artery walls are made up of three layers of different types of tissue, each with a specific function. Vertebral artery dissection begins as a tear in one layer of the artery wall. Blood leaks through this tear and spreads between the other layers. As the blood collects in the area of the dissection, it forms a clot that limits blood flow through the artery. If the clot is large enough to completely block blood flow, this can result in a stroke.

Equally dangerous, pieces of the clot can break off and travel up through the bloodstream, limit the blood flow to the brain and cause a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). This is what happened to Jane.
“It was terrifying not being able to communicate with everyone. I knew what they were saying and I was trying to respond, but they couldn’t understand what I was trying to say.”

“Once I was in the emergency room and they found the dissection, I opted to take the ‘clot busting’ medicine. Within a few hours, my symptoms had resolved, but I had to stay in the hospital for a few days as they worked with IV medications to control my blood pressure and potential for other clots.”

Vertebral artery dissection (VAD) is a rare cause of stroke in the general population however it is one of the more common causes of stroke in patients younger than 45 years old. The signs and symptoms of VAD can be vague, and diagnosis can sometimes be delayed. While a stroke is the first sign of vertebral artery dissection and emergency treatment is required, more commonly, symptoms develop over a period of hours or even days.

Symptoms tend to be general rather than specific and may include headache, face and neck pain, vision disturbances such as double vision, a pulsatile “whooshing” sound in one of the ears, or a sudden decrease in sense of taste, and/or weakness on one side of the body. The stroke caused by a VAD can develop immediately or even a week or more after symptoms begin.

“At first I couldn’t understand what was happening and if I had been at home - well I may have just gone to lay down and blamed it on being overtired or just stressed. I’m so happy that I was surrounded by people who recognized my stroke symptoms, even though they were atypical, and got me to the hospital.”

Jane was able to return to work a week after her dissection and TIA with no deficits and continues to work with her team of doctors to ensure she remains stable.

“I am monitoring my blood pressure, watching my diet, and working with my doctors to make sure we are doing everything possible to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Signs and Symptoms of a Stroke

Minutes matter when a person is having a stroke and knowing the signs and symptoms could save someone’s life.

Use the letters in F.A.S.T to spot a stroke:

  • F = Face Drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person's smile uneven?
  • A = Arm Weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • S = Speech Difficulty – Is speech slurred?
  • T = Time to call 911

While Jane only had trouble speaking, the numbness in the fingers of her one hand was another common sign.

Other common stroke symptoms include:

  • NUMBNESS of face, arm, hand, or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • CONFUSION, trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • TROUBLE SEEING in one or both eyes
  • TROUBLE WALKING, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • SEVERE HEADACHE with no known cause

What next?