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Is This Stress or a Stroke?

By Lisa O'Neill Hill
WebMD Feature

Are you stressed out? Is your head throbbing, and you just don’t feel right? Worried you’re having a stroke? You’re probably not.

Anxiety, migraines, blood sugar changes, and lots of other things can make you feel weak and funny -- and they’re much more likely.

But call 911 right away if any of these suddenly happen to you:

  • A terrible headache, worse than you’ve ever had before
  • Weakness on one side of your body
  • Trouble walking, talking, or understanding things
  • Vision loss in one or both eyes

They’re all warning signs of a stroke. Don’t wait to call 911.

“Every stroke survivor had different symptoms, but the one thing that is common is the suddenness of the symptoms,” says National Stroke Association spokeswoman Clair Diones.

You know your body better than anyone else, says another stroke expert.

“If you are worried, you should probably get it checked out," says Michael Rippee, MD, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

What Else It Could Be

Take a deep breath and try not to worry if you’re feeling off. A lot of things can mimic stroke symptoms.

Stress is one of them. “Everybody’s body deals with it differently,” Rippee says. He’s treated people who’ve had changes in their vision and speech that were actually caused by stress and anxiety.

Or, Rippee says, it could be:

  • Migraine headaches. Migraines can look like a stroke. They can affect your vision and make you feel weak. If you have migraines, you have a higher risk of having a stroke, so watch your symptoms closely. If you have any of the warning signs, get medical attention right away.
  • High blood pressure. If your blood pressure is high, it can cause headaches, feelings of weakness, and vision problems. This is what you might hear a doctor call “uncontrolled hypertension.” It’s also a major risk factor for stroke. For most people, normal blood pressure is a top number of 120 or less and a bottom number of 80 or less.
  • Anxiety. It could make you feel numb around the mouth or fingertips.
  • Changes in blood sugar. Too little or too much can cause vision problems, especially if you have diabetes and aren’t taking your medication, like insulin, or if you took too much. It could also cause you to feel confused, similar to a stroke.

Is It Just a Headache?

If you have a dull headache that you’ve had before, or if it feels like a tight band around your head, that's probably a tension headache.

“If you have a headache that’s moderate to severe and out of character completely, that’s something to be concerned about,” Rippee says.

Some people describe pain from a stroke as the worst headache of your life, he said. If that happens, you should call 911.

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