Women and Strokes: Unique Risks & Uncommon Symptoms

Strokes are the third leading cause of death in the US and are on the rise in young women. Arm yourself by knowing the common and lesser-known risks and symptoms tied to this deadly disease.

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Would you know if you were having a stroke? Not all symptoms – especially those in women – are the classic ones you may have already heard about.

A stroke happens when a blood clot travels to or forms in a part of the brain. Deprived of oxygen, the brain cells in the affected area die off. According to the National Stroke Association, up to half a million women experience a stroke (55% more than men) every year, and at least 1 out of 5 of these women die. What’s more, stroke is not a disease that discriminates against age. In fact, strokes are on the rise in young women by up to 40%. Lastly, women are more likely to die from a stroke than men partly because their symptoms can be less common and are more easily missed.

The most common risk factors tied to strokes that impact everyone regardless of race or gender include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight (even by as little as 10 pounds)
  • Family history
  • Smoking 

Not every stroke victim has the classic risk factors. Here are some less common risk for strokes that women, particularly young women in their 20s and 30s, need to know:

Lesser-Known Risk Factors of Stroke

Migraines

Migraine headaches, which are more common in women then in men, are vascular headaches that cause blood vessels to spasm. These spasms are believed to increase the risk of strokes since they can cause blood flow loss to the brain and create clotting.

The Pill

 Although it occurs in a relatively small percentage of women, taking the birth control pill can cause blood clots related to strokes. This does not mean that if you’re taking the pill you need to go off of it. Rather, you need to be extra aware of this risk factor, especially if you have other risk factors such as high blood pressure or a family history. Always discuss your health background in detail with your doctor to determine if you should be on the pill.

Pregnancy and Giving Birth

 During pregnancy and birth, a woman experiences major hormonal changes and blood pressure typically rises. Studies show that during the post-partum period, especially within the first 6 weeks after delivery, a woman’s risk of having a stroke is 2.5 times higher than usual. 

One Glass of Soda or Sweetened Juice Per Day

 A new study showed that as little as one soda or sugary juice drink a day increases the risk of stroke in women by 83% while there was no correlation in men. According to a different study, diet soda also increases a woman’s risk.  

Sudden Neck Movement

 The neck houses major arteries – carotid and vertebral – that transport blood to the brain. Sudden movements that cause you to flex or extend the neck too far can break a blood vessel or cause a blood clot. While this is rare, you should still be aware and avoid sudden movements of the neck that can occur, say, while you’re working out or doing yoga.

Symptoms of Stroke

If you experience a stroke on the left side of the brain, the right side of the body is impacted, often resulting in numbness, tingling, etc. If the right side of the brain is injured, then the left side of the body is affected. A stroke in the back of the brain can impact vision, while a stroke in the front of the brain can impair speech.

The classic symptoms of strokes include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg – especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination

While women experience the classic symptoms of stroke, they can also experience different symptoms that are often dismissed as something else. These include:

 

1. Sudden Nausea and Vomiting: These symptoms are usually very sudden and are often accompanied by other more common stroke symptoms.

 

2. Pain on One Side of the Body: In addition to or instead of the traditional numbness or tingling, women often feel pain that can occur anywhere in the body, such as the face, arm, or leg.

3. Hiccups: These involuntary contractions of the diaphragm are controlled by nerves in the brain which, when irritated, may cause a stroke. It is unknown why this occurs in women but not in men.

4. Extreme Exhaustion: Women often experience a sudden fit of sleepiness, such as the urge to lie down and take a nap before having a stroke. However, taking a nap is the worst thing you can do when having a stroke since your brain needs to stay active so you can take action and get help right away.

If you ever think you are having a stroke, take these action steps:

  • First, appraise your symptoms. Bear in mind that stroke symptoms tend to come on suddenly, and victims often experience at least two symptoms.
  • If you think you’re having a stroke, call 911 immediately in order to get to a hospital within 3 hours for best chance of recovery. The most effective stroke treatments are only available if the stroke is recognized and diagnosed within the first three hours of the first symptoms. Many Americans are not aware that stroke patients may not be eligible for stroke treatments if they arrive at the hospital after the 3-hour window.

If you think someone may be having a stroke, act F.A.S.T. and do this simple test:

  • F—FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
  • A—ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • S—SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
  • T—TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 911 immediately.