Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability around the globe, with approximately 800,000 people suffering a stroke each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while you may believe yourself to be at low risk for the condition, experts say that there’s one type of stroke that can affect a surprising demographic: younger individuals who are in otherwise good health. That’s why medical professionals are sounding the alarm about one particular visual symptom associated with this kind of stroke and the underlying condition that makes it more likely. They say that if you see this one thing, you may need emergency medical assistance. Read on to find out which visual symptom to look out for and which common condition puts you at higher risk—even if you’re otherwise healthy.
Migraines are debilitating headaches that can come with a surprising set of additional symptoms. These often include sensitivity to light and sound, nausea or vomiting, and a throbbing or pulsing sensation on one side of the head. Some migraine sufferers experience a particular type of migraine known as migraine with aura (MA), which comes with additional visual symptoms not experienced by the broader population of people with migraines. Those with MA often “see flashing lights, blind spots, or jagged lines in their visual field prior to onset of their migraine headaches,” or during the headache itself, explains a 2021 study published in the journal Neurology.
The relationship between migraines and stroke risk has been well-established for decades. “The first epidemiological suggestion that migraine may be an independent risk factor for stroke came from the Collaborative Group for the Study of Stroke in Young Women, published in 1975, which showed an increased relative risk of stroke with migraine compared with neighbor controls,” says one 2011 study. “Since then, the association of migraine with the risk of stroke has been investigated in several observational studies”
While all migraines are distressing to those who experience them, experts now say that having a migraine with aura is particularly troubling since it’s linked with increased ischemic stroke risk. Until recently, the reason has been a mystery among experts.
Thankfully, the Neurology study’s researchers were able to identify certain factors that may contribute to this relationship. “Investigators found a strong association between four coagulation factors and migraine susceptibility,” the researchers wrote. Specifically, they found that “genetically increased levels of three blood clotting factors” as well as “genetically decreased levels of fibrinogen (a protein important in the late stages of the blood clotting process)” were all linked to migraine susceptibility. The team noted that there was no such relationship between these factors and migraines without aura (MO).
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Gretchen Tietjen, MD, the chair of the University of Toledo’s Department of Neurology shared in a Q&A for the American Migraine Foundation that even if you’re young and otherwise healthy, you can still be at high risk of migraine-related stroke. That’s because migraine-related stroke and non-migraine-related stroke affect different demographics. “When we look at who’s at risk of migraine-related stroke, it is people that don’t have conventional risk factors. They tend to be young, under the age of 45, maybe under 35, and women,” she said, as opposed to older males, who have the highest overall stroke risk.
Tietjen says that those who have experienced MA in the past should be especially conscious of stroke warning signs so they can recognize a problem if one should arise. “People that have migraine with aura, they need to know what the stroke warning signs are. They need to know what the stroke risk factors are so they can at least avoid the things they can control,” she advises.
To remember the emergency signs of a stroke, experts from the American Stroke Association say you should memorize the acronym F.A.S.T. This stands for facial drooping, arm weakness, and speech difficulty, meaning it’s time to call 911. Don’t hesitate to call for help if you experience any of these symptoms— especially if they occur in conjunction with a migraine with aura.
Additionally, you can minimize your risk of migraine-related stroke by avoiding migraine triggers. “I would definitely recommend using preventive medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes,” Tietjen advises. Speak with your doctor for more information on possible interventions for migraines.