If it Isn't a Stroke, Then What is it?


Everyone has heard it before- “I think I'm having a stroke.”

Many of us have even said it before-

“My hand feels weird- I wonder if this is a stroke.”

“I am really dizzy- is this a stroke?”

“My head is going to explode- could this be what a stroke feels like?”

“I'm seeing spots- could I be having a stroke?”

Some feelings are scary- head pain, body tingling, vision changes, dizziness, and feeling ‘out of it.’ And the reality is- strokes are serious and usually unexpected.

It is important to get medical attention right away. But many people think twice before calling for help.

Getting medical attention for a possible stroke is the correct answer, but people who think they might be having a stroke often make all of the above choices and more. The outcome of a stroke depends in large part on early treatment. Strokes vary when it comes to symptoms, severity, outcome and prognosis.

But some people who think they may be having a stroke go through a medical evaluation that reveals a different medical condition besides a stroke. Some of the illnesses that initially seem similar to a stroke are actually more serious than a stroke while some are not very serious at all. There are many illnesses that share some symptoms with a stroke- at least initially.

If it isn't a stroke - what is it?

  • TIA, a transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke. is a temporary stroke that improves without causing permanent damage. A TIA is a warning that there is a risk of stroke.
  • Migraine: some people experience migraines with aura or complicated migraines that cause neurological symptoms. People who experience migraines with complex symptoms should be under the care of a neurologist.
  • Medication reaction: medications, especially when newly introduced, can cause a range of symptoms. When starting a new medication, it is always safer to try to adjust slowly and watch for unusual physical signs.
  • Severe allergy: allergies usually cause rash or trouble breathing. But occasionally, allergies to food, insect bites, or products can cause tingling or dizziness.
  • Seizure: most people think that a seizure always causes arm jerking and loss of consciousness. But a seizure can start with unusual sensations, weakness, dizziness or vision changes.
  • Diabetes: some people with diabetes experience sensory changes before the diagnosis of diabetes is established. Patients with diabetes can experience weakness, numbness, or tingling when the blood sugar is too high or too low.
  • Multiple sclerosis: MS, like stroke, can cause a wide variety of neurological symptoms.
  • Neuropathy: nerve disease can cause weakness or unusual sensations.
  • Brain tumor: a brain tumor, or a tumor from any part of the body that spreads to the brain, can cause symptoms similar to those of a stroke. With modern technology, many tumors can be safely and effectively treated.
  • Infection: infections can cause dizziness, numbness and trouble with coordination. Infections that affect the brain- encephalitis and meningitis- are relatively rare, but often have some similar symptoms to those of a stroke.
  • Spine problem: a spine injury or infection can cause weakness or sensory changes of the arms or legs.
  • Heart attack: a heart attack causes chest pain and severe trouble breathing. Often, dizziness accompanies a heart attack as well.
  • Heart arrhythmia: an irregular heartbeat can cause dizziness or weakness because of irregular blood supply to the brain. Arrhythmias can also lead to stroke because arrhythmia increases the risk of blood clots.

Bottom Line

When it comes to distressing symptoms, it is always best to get medical attention first, and focus on understanding the cause second. Whether the symptoms turn out to be a stroke or not, you will likely have to begin taking some new medications and making some changes to improve your health.

Warnings can be scary, but most of the time the outcome is manageable.


Martin Samuels and David Feske, Office Practice of Neurology,  2nd Edition, Churchill Livingston, 2003

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