A potentially life-saving exercise would be to know the warning signs you’re suffering a stroke.
What you don’t know may kill you or leave you impaired when it comes to strokes. That’s the message from Dr. Edgar Kenton, the director of neurology from the Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania and a national expert on stroke and neurological disease.
May is Stroke Awareness Month and studies have shown 62 to 65 percent of Americans don’t know one warning sign of stroke, Kenton says.
“I was at a health fair and just randomly started asking people what are the warning signs of stroke and four of the five would say chest pain and pain in the arm,” Kenton says. “They confuse it with a heart attack. We’re saying you have to know these warning signs in order to identify it and get in the hospital within the proper amount of time.”
A stroke means the circulation to the brain is blocked. The blood doesn’t get to the brain because there’s a blockage in a blood vessel not unlike a hardening of the arteries or because a clot has gone from the heart and blocked off a blood vessel. In other cases, as the weather gets warmer, particularly in an older population, dehydration results in blood thickening and could lead to a stroke. The worst stroke that appears in 15 percent of stroke patients is a hemorrhage where they bleed into the brain due to an aneurism or high blood pressure, Kenton says.
Kenton’s main message is about reducing the severity of strokes when they occur. A drug administered promptly after a stroke can dissolve a clot and prevent further injury but only 3 percent to 5 percent of patients who need it are getting it because they’re not aware they’re having a stroke, he says.
“They’re not getting in the emergency room in time because the sooner you get in, the more effective the drug is,” Kenton says. “It works best in 90 minutes and out to about three hours, and we’re stretching it out in some instances to four-and-a-half hours. In the instances we can get the drug into the patient in less than 90 minutes, the outcomes are better.”
If the stroke is caused by a clot that can be dissolved and reopen the blood vessel, it can reduce the damage to the brain, says Kenton. “Every minute lost is 30,000 brain cells.” Kenton says people need to lose their impression that if I’m having a stroke, there’s nothing I can do about it.
“I’ll just go to bed, and I won’t wake up with it or if I do wake up, there’s nothing I can do about it anyhow,” Kenton says. “That’s totally untrue these days and that’s why we’re seeing people come in the next day when they should’ve been in within an hour of the event when we could have done something about it.”
Kenton uses the term “Time is Brain” to describe the importance of getting help.
“Don’t call your doctor. Don’t call your neighbor. Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911. They’ll get you the help more immediately and alert the hospital that you’re on the way,” Kenton says.
There are 800,000 Americans who have a stroke each year. Since 1972, the incidents have been going down, which is good news Kenton says. It used to be the third leading cause of death in this country behind heart attack and cancer, but now it’s moved behind respiratory pulmonary disease, he says.
But strokes can be disabling for those who don’t die. You can lose your vision. You can have paralysis on one side of your body, arm and leg, lose your intellectual skills, lose speech or recognize language and be bound to a wheelchair.
The national campaign to draw attention to warning signs of stroke is called FAST. F stands for facial weakness. A stands for drifting of the arm, particularly on the side of the facial weakness. S is for speed and slurring of words and using the wrong words. And T is for the Time is Brain mantra.
But Kenton says the best way to avoid a stroke is not to have one in the first place. Younger people are getting strokes because of obesity and diabetes.
People need to increase their activity, watch their diet, especially their cholesterol. Knowing your blood pressure is vital and that’s one reason the death rate has gone down because of that recognition and treatment of that problem, Kenton says. Smoking is also a factor in addition to weight control and diabetes.
“A lot of people say I’m getting older or talking about their family history because strokes run in the family or are higher in their race (African-Americans and Hispanics),” Kenton says. “We’re saying if you know you’re at risk, you have all the more reason to take care of yourself.”