Although men are more likely to have a stroke, women have a higher lifetime risk of stroke. Women are also more likely to die from a stroke.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five American women will have a stroke. Nearly 60 percent of women who experience a stroke will die from the attack. Stroke is the third leading cause of death for women.
Women face a greater chance of having a stroke for many reasons. Women live longer than men. Women experience more stress than men. Women are more likely to have high blood pressure than men. Pregnancy and birth control also increase a woman’s risk of stroke.
Women Often Do Not Have The Hallmark Symptoms of A Stroke
The classic warning signs of stroke are often not present in women. Women are much more likely than men to present with atypical signs of stroke. The primary warning signs of stroke include sudden numbness or weakness, sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding, sudden trouble seeing, sudden trouble walking, dizziness, or loss of balance, and/or sudden, severe headache.
Studies have shown that while women may experience these classic symptoms, women are 40-50% more likely to have a stroke without having these hallmark symptoms. Women are 40% less likely to report difficulty with walking, balance or coordination, or dizziness. Women are 20% less likely to report trouble seeing. Women are 33% less likely to report any of the classic warning signs.
This does not mean that women will never present with the classic signs of a stroke. But it means that just because a woman does not have any of the classic signs of a stroke, a doctor cannot conclude that a woman is not having a stroke.
Doctors must appreciate differences in how men and women present to the hospital after having a stroke.
Unfortunately, according to data from a Michigan stroke registry, women are about half as likely as men to receive tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) as a treatment for stroke. TPA is the clot-busting medication that is used as a first-line treatment for the most common type of stroke.
It is also well-known that women are more likely to experience delays in stroke treatment than men. Compared with men, women with stroke arrive at the emergency department later, have a longer wait to see a physician, often wait longer after arriving at the hospital to see a specialist, and are less likely to receive tPA.
Women May Have Unique of “Atypical” Stroke Symptoms
In addition to not having the classic signs of stroke, women may present with symptoms that are altogether different from men. Stroke symptoms for women are sometimes so different from the classic warning signs of a stroke that doctors may misdiagnose these signs and associate them to another health problem.
The fact that women may have unique stroke symptoms is not an excuse for doctors to delay treatment or misdiagnose a stroke. Doctors in hospitals are just as likely to see a woman with a stroke as they are a man with a stroke. If a doctor misdiagnosis a woman with a stroke or delays the diagnosis of a stroke, it may be medical malpractice.
A delay in diagnosing strokes for women will cause a delay in treatment, which can be fatal. It is critical for doctors to recognize the signs of stroke in women so that immediate treatment can be provided.
Atypical Stroke Symptoms
Men may also have atypical or unique stroke symptoms, but the percentage is much higher for women. The stroke symptoms for women include:
- Coordination problems
- Shortness of Breath
- Pain (arms, legs, face)
- Chest Pain
Because these symptoms are unique to women, it may be difficult to immediately connect them to stroke. This can delay treatment, causing serious injury, permanent disability, or death.
Altered Mental Status As A Stroke Sign
Strange behaviors, called “altered mental status,” can also indicate a stroke. These symptoms include:
- Sudden behavioral change
- Sudden drowsiness or fatigue
Researchers in a 2009 study found that altered mental status was the most common nontraditional symptom. Around 1 out of 4 women reported altered mental status related to stroke.
Although both men and women can be affected, women are about 1.5 times more likely to report at least one nontraditional stroke symptom.
Doctors in emergency departments across the country are required to be reasonably in diagnosing and treating illnesses. Emergency department doctors are commonly the first set of doctors to encounter a patient with a stroke.
Any doctor who treats patients with stroke must be aware of the signs and symptoms of stroke-both for men and women. If a doctor misdiagnosis a stroke as some other condition or delays diagnosing a stroke, it may be medical malpractice.