What would you be likely to do within the first three hours of experiencing weakness, numbness, difficulty speaking or difficulty seeing?
Researchers from Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center asked this question of more than a thousand people nationwide – and were astonished that almost three quarters of respondents under the age of 45 gave an answer that could endanger their health.
Sudden weakness, numbness, difficulty speaking or seeing are symptoms of stroke. Your brain is sending signals that its blood flow is impeded – either from a burst or blocked blood vessel — and you must act quickly in order to minimize or reverse damage. That means an urgent trip to the hospital.
Syracuse has the region’s first and only comprehensive stroke center, at Upstate University Hospital. On duty around the clock at Upstate is a medical team of experts in stroke care including neurologists, neurosurgeons, neurointerventional radiologists, neurocritical care specialists, board certified emergency physicians and specialized neuroscience nurses.
But the team’s abilities are useless if patients don’t recognize stroke symptoms and promptly get to the hospital. The first three hours of a stroke are critical. Waiting to see whether symptoms improve, as many survey respondents said they would do, is wrong.
“There simply is no time to wait. There is a very limited window in which to start treatment because the brain is very sensitive to a lack of blood flow or to bleeding, and the longer patients wait, the more devastating the consequences,” says David Liebeskind, MD, a neurologist at UCLA, which released results of the study this morning.
Neurologist Gene Latorre, MD, medical director of the stroke service at Upstate, emphasizes that every minute counts. “The sooner we identify and treat acute stroke, the better the outcome.”
Medications and medical interventions can be used to treat different kinds of strokes.
Ischemic strokes, those caused by clots, may be treated with an intravenous clot-busting medication. Sometimes the blood clot is too big, or the patient cannot be given the medication because of other medical concerns. Upstate has specialists who can remove the clot using special catheters inserted through the patient’s groin. Hemorrhagic strokes, caused by a bleed, are sometimes managed with medications that carefully control blood pressure. Sometimes surgery is indicated.
Results of the UCLA survey are especially troubling because they reveal so many young adults are unaware of the signs and symptoms of stroke at a time when the number of strokes in people under the age of 45 have increased by as much as 53 percent since the mid 90s.
Latorre says Upstate University Hospital has seen an increase in patients diagnosed with stroke who are younger than 45. The increase is likely caused in part by a rise in the number of young adults with diabetes, uncontrolled high blood pressure and/or obesity, conditions that increase a person’s risk for stroke. Smoking rates also remain high among people from age 18 to 45, and smoking significantly increases a person’s risk of stroke.
Stroke experts suggest memorizing the mnemonic FAST to help remember the sudden signs of stroke:
F is for face drooping. Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven?
A is for arm weakness. Is one are weak or numb? As the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S is for speech difficulty. Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, such as “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
T is time to call 9-1-1. If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get the person to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you’ll know when the first symptoms appeared.
So, what if you are a 30-something who experiences sudden weakness, numbness, fuzzy vision and slurred speech?
Remember that stroke happens to both the young and the old.
“If you experience sudden dysfunction in your face, arm or speech, it’s time to call 911,” says Latorre. “Stroke is treatable, and every minute counts. The sooner you get to the nearest Stroke Center, the better your chance of having a good recovery.”