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'Whispering' Strokes Are Common

Whispering Strokes Are Subtle, Often Overlooked, and Risky, Report Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Aug. 2, 2007 -- Researchers have coined a new term, "whispering stroke," for strokes with subtle symptoms that doctors and patients may overlook.

But whispering strokes shouldn't get hushed. A new study shows that whispering strokes can dim patients' physical and mental functioning and cut their quality of life.

"People need to take these symptoms more seriously and see a doctor about them," says researcher George Howard, DrPH, in an American Heart Association news release.

Howard works for the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health. His study appears in today's early online edition of the journal Stroke.

Learn Stroke Symptoms

Before you read about Howard's study, review this list of stroke symptoms:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg (especially on one side of the body)
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding speech
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

Seek emergency care immediately if you or someone you know experiences those symptoms, even to a mild degree.

Those symptoms don't always indicate stroke, but the stakes are too high to see if the symptoms pass. Stroke is the No. 2 cause of death for U.S. adults. It's also a leading cause of disability.

Strokes happen when the blood flow to the brain is interrupted. Most strokes are ischemic strokes, which are caused by blood clots. Clot-busting stroke drugs must be given shortly after the onset of stroke symptoms.

Other strokes are bleeding (hemorrhagic) strokes, which happen when a blood vessel in the brain starts to leak. Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), often called ministrokes, are fleeting but can still cause irreversible damage.

Whispering Stroke Study

Howard's team studied more than 21,000 African-American and white U.S. adults aged 45 and older. They completed a survey about their general health.

The survey included these six questions about stroke symptoms:

  • Have you ever had sudden, painless weakness on one side of your body?
  • Have you ever had sudden numbness or a dead feeling on one side of your body?
  • Have you ever had sudden, painless loss of vision in one or both eyes?
  • Have you ever suddenly lost one-half of your vision?
  • Have you ever suddenly lost the ability to understand what people are saying?
  • Have you ever suddenly lost the ability to express yourself verbally or in writing?

Participants also noted any diagnosis of a stroke or TIA, and rated their physical well-being, mental functioning, and quality of life.

Whispering Strokes Common

Nearly three-quarters of the participants reported no history of stroke symptoms and no diagnosis of stroke or ministroke.

But a sizeable minority -- almost 16% of all participants -- apparently had had "whispering strokes." They had had stroke symptoms but were never diagnosed with a stroke or ministroke.

People who had had whispering strokes gave themselves lower ratings for physical well-being, mental function, and quality of life than people with no history of stroke symptoms.

It's not clear which came first -- whispering strokes or poorer health. Like other strokes, whispering strokes were associated with health risks including high blood pressure and diabetes.

Whispering strokes appear to be "quite common," write the researchers, who included George Howard, DrPH, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham's School of Public Health.

Once someone has a whispering stroke, they may be more likely to have another stroke, Howard's team warns. That's one more reason to always heed stroke symptoms -- whether they whisper or scream for attention.

Talk to your doctor to gauge your risk for stroke and to learn how to reduce your stroke risk through diet, exercise, not smoking, and medications, if needed.

  • Find others who have suffered strokes -- or loved ones of those who have had strokes -- on WebMD's Stroke Support Group.

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