Setting the story straight about stroke

DMU physical therapy students help a patient rehabilitate at the annual Stroke Camp.
DMU physical therapy students help a patient rehabilitate at the annual Stroke Camp.

Stroke is the number one cause of adult disability and the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Despite its prevalence, many misconceptions remain about stroke. These common myths have been perpetuated for far too long and it’s time to set the story straight.

Myth #1: Stroke affects the heart.

Strokes are a result of circulatory issues that may stem from the heart, but actually attack the brain. They occur when a blood clot blocks an artery or a blood vessel bursts. The interruption in blood flow rapidly kills brain tissue, causing physical deficits such as weakness on one side of the body, trouble speaking or understanding language and problems with vision, balance and perception.

“A stroke is a problem with the circulatory system throughout your body. It happens when there’s a change in the circulation to your brain,” explains Katherine Mercuris, P.T., D.H.S., assistant professor of physical therapy at Des Moines University. “The physical symptoms of stroke depend on where in the brain it occurs.”

Myth #2: Strokes can’t be prevented.

Strokes are caused by a variety of factors, including high cholesterol, hypertension, diabetes, smoking and side effects from medications. While some strokes stem from congenital anomalies that you’re born with, the National Stroke Association estimates that 80% of strokes are preventable.

A balanced diet, normal weight and regular exercise prevent against stroke by keeping your risk factors under control. A healthy lifestyle is especially crucial for stroke survivors to avoid a recurrence.

Myth #3: You can never fully recover from a stroke.

The most common misconception about stroke is that patients never progress after the first several months of recovery. The most rapid gains are made in the first six months of rehabilitation, but patients can keep progressing beyond that.

Due to the brain’s plasticity, stroke survivors have the potential for ongoing improvement. The level of recovery depends in part on how much damage was done in the brain and how much rehab the patient receives.

“It takes a team of health care professionals, including occupational therapists, speech pathologists and physical therapists, to work back from the damage caused by stroke,” Mercuris says. “But there is no plateau in recovery. Ongoing progress is possible with continued exercise and activity.”

Stroke is a misunderstood condition with devastating effects on victims and their families. Knowing the difference between myth and truth can ease the recovery or prevent a stroke entirely.

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