Nearly 800,000 Americans suffer strokes each year, according to the American Stroke Association. That’s about one stroke every 40 seconds. It is the fourth leading cause of death among adults in the United States. The faster you react to the onset of symptoms, the less damage the stroke will cause and the greater the opportunity for a complete recovery. Be aware of the risk factors, and learn to recognize the warning signs of stroke. Seek medical help immediately if you believe you or someone you are with is having a stroke.
When to get to the hospital
If you suspect someone may be having a stroke, the American Stroke Association recommends asking the person to do the following:
- Raise both arms
- Repeat a simple statement such as, “Today is a sunny day.”
If the person cannot perform one or all of these tasks, call 911 immediately.
What is a stroke?
A stroke, or “brain attack,” occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. There are two types of attacks. An eschemic stroke, which accounts for about 80 percent of brain attacks, is caused by a blood clot that blocks a blood vessel in the brain. A hemorrhagic stroke is caused when a blood vessel in the brain bursts. When either event happens, brain cells begin to die immediately and the brain becomes damaged.
When someone experiences a stroke, the functions controlled by the area of the brain where the attack occurs are impaired or lost, including speech, voluntary and involuntary muscle control, and vision. The effects of a stroke depend on where in the brain the attack occurs, how quickly blood flow is restored, and how much the brain has been damaged.
For example, someone who has a minor stroke and seeks immediate treatment might experience only slight impairment, such as weakness in an arm or leg. Someone who has a more serious attack and delays treatment may become paralyzed on one side of their body. A major stroke can interfere with a person’s ability to speak or swallow, understand language or follow directions, even see things in the periphery.
According to the National Stroke Association, more than two-thirds of survivors are left with some type of disability. It is possible to recover completely, however, if the stroke is mild and treatment is received quickly. Risk factors for stroke include hypertension, elevated cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and cigarette smoking.
Because time is so important to stroke survival and recovery, it is important to recognize the warning signs. The signs of a brain attack are usually sudden and include:
- Weakness or numbness in the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
- Confusion, trouble speaking or trouble understanding
- Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
- Trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
- Severe headaches with no known cause
Transient ischemic attacks (TIAs) occur when blood flow to an artery is reduced for a short period of time. They are an early warning sign that a full-blown attack may occur in the near future. TIAs, also called “mini-strokes,” can have similar symptoms to those of an actual stroke, but the symptoms last less than 24 hours. These symptoms, which can include numbness, tingling, changes in sensation, weakness, a heavy feeling in the arms and legs, and speech difficulty pass quickly and are often ignored. In fact, according to the American Stroke Association, people who have experienced such episodes are nine-and-a-half times more likely to have a full-fledged stroke. After a TIA, the risk of a stroke at seven days is 8 percent, at 30 days 12 percent and at 90 days 17 percent. If you experience TIAs, consult your doctor to identify the cause and work to prevent a more severe stroke in the future.
If you experience warning signs of a stroke, call 911 immediately or get to an emergency room immediately. Healthcare providers have three hours from the time symptoms begin to give patients clot-busting medication which can make a difference. Remember, the longer blood flow is cut off to the brain, the greater the damage and the less successful the recovery. The most important factor in successfully treating a stroke is getting to your local hospital’s emergency department as quickly as possible, preferably to a facility such as Saint Peter’s University Hospital which is a designated stroke center. An acute stroke team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and includes emergency medicine physicians, neurologists, radiologists, hospitalists, and nurses. Patients are quickly evaluated so treatment decisions can be made. As soon as a diagnosis is made, the patient is admitted to a dedicated stroke unit where all staff members are fully trained in stroke treatment and management.
In June of 2012, Saint Peter’s University Hospital received the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s Get With The Guidelines®-Stroke Gold Plus Quality Achievement Award. Courtesy of Roger Behar, M.D., a board-certified neurologist with Princeton Rutgers Neurology and medical director of the Stroke Program at Saint Peter’s University Hospital. Visit saintpetershcs.com to find a neurologist affiliated with Saint Peter’s or to learn more about stroke treatment.