February 6th, 2014
04:03 PM ET
It wasn't supposed to happen to her. Just 32 and pregnant, Holly Carson woke with a crushing headache.
"It was ... like if somebody had a baseball bat taken to (my) head," says Carson. Having some medical training, she immediately suspected she was having a stroke.
At 26, med student Lauren Barnes' migraine took a turn for the worse. Then, "I had a rush of pins and needles sensation and tingling throughout the entire right side of my body," she says.
Stroke isn't just for the elderly, as Carson and Barnes can attest. Scientists have known for some time that women have some risk factors for stroke that are unique to them and others that are more commonly seen in women than men.
To make women more aware, the American Heart Association released the first guidelines for the prevention of stroke in women on Thursday. "Prevention can start when women are very young, during childbearing years," says Dr. Cheryl Bushnell, chair of the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association writing group and an associate professor of neurology and stroke director at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Awareness is key, because when it comes to strokes, "time lost is brain lost," according to the AHA.
Stroke recommendations unique to women:
Women have certain stroke risk factors that are unique to their sex such as pregnancy, blood pressure disorders brought on by pregnancy, oral contraceptives and postmenopausal hormone use. Many of the new guidelines focus on managing blood pressure, one of the best ways to help prevent stroke.
- High blood pressure before pregnancy
- High blood pressure during pregnancy
- History of preeclampsia
Because of these concerns, the new guidelines urge doctors and patients to take this condition seriously, not only by routinely monitoring blood pressure during the childbearing years and beyond, but treating other lifestyle problems early as well such as smoking, high cholesterol and obesity.
- Birth control pills
- Hormone replacement therapy
Risk factors more common in women:
- Migraines with aura
- Irregular heartbeat
Diabetes, depression, and emotional stress are additional stroke risk factors more common in women than men, but because treatment options are similar between the sexes, there are no new recommendations in the stroke guidelines.
Carson and Barnes are doing well today because they both recognized the signs of stroke and got help right away. A quick way to learn the warning signs is by remembering F.A.S.T.
Stroke can also cause numbness in the face, arms and legs, especially on one side, problems with walking and balance, sudden confusions and problems with understanding, vision problems in one or both eyes and a sudden headache with possible vomiting.
Barnes has recovered completely and continues medical school. Carson delivered a healthy baby, but despite rehab still has some limitations. She has little use of her left arm and hand and when people stop to ask her about it she tells them her story and talks about the warning signs.
"I've allowed this to be a living message for others. A stoke didn't ruin my life - it changed it," Carson says.
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