Think you’re having a stroke? Every minute counts

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Think you’re having a stroke
Credit: Michigan Medicine.

If you think you might be having a stoke, don’t hesitate or ignore the suspicion. Call 911 and get to an emergency room.

That’s what Cemal Sozener, M.D., wants to remind everyone during National Stroke Awareness Month — and all year long, too.

“When a person is suffering a stroke, every minute without blood flow to the brain means brain cells are dying,” says Sozener, a Michigan Medicine emergency medicine physician.

His warning stems from years of treating stroke patients, many of whom do not get to the emergency room soon enough for effective treatment.

“Only 5 to 12 percent of the stroke patients we see are eligible for the recommended treatment,” Sozener says. “Most patients don’t get to us soon enough.”

That scenario is often preventable.

Notes Sozener: “Stroke victims say they felt something was wrong but waited to see if their symptom would go away.”

“People call their friends, do Google searches of their symptom or lie down, hoping it will go away. Other patients tell us they were scared or they don’t like hospitals as reasons for not calling 911.”

Most of them regret not acting sooner, he says.

According to a survey by the American Stroke Association, one-third of adults in the United States have had symptoms consistent with a ministroke, or a transient ischemic attack (TIA), but only 3 percent called 911 for help.

Stroke causes and treatment

Stroke affects the arteries leading to the brain or within the brain. It is the fifth-leading cause of death and a leading cause of disability in the United States.

A stroke occurs when a blood vessel carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain either is blocked by a clot (ischemic stroke) or ruptures (hemorrhagic).

Ischemic strokes account for about 87 percent of strokes. In these cases, the patient may be eligible for a clot-busting drug known as alteplase, the only intravenous treatment approved by the Food and Drug Administration for ischemic strokes.

But it’s effective only within a limited time frame.

“When administered within 4 1/2 hours of the first stroke symptoms, this brain-saving treatment can reduce the long-term effects of stroke and provide the best chance possible to return back to normal,” says Sozener.

In some cases, an endovascular treatment in which a catheter device known as a stent retriever is used to remove the blood clot.

Doctors thread a catheter through an artery in the groin or arm up to the blocked artery in the brain. The stent opens and grabs the clot, allowing doctors to remove the stent with the trapped clot.

Taking action

How do you recognize the warning signs of stroke? Use the “F.A.S.T.” acronym to help remember:

Even if a patient isn’t sure he or she is having a stroke, it’s better to have a doctor make that determination.

“We would much rather see a patient early and be able to rule out stoke than to see them beyond the 4 1/2-hour window and not be able to help them,” Sozener says.

“Trust your knowledge of your own body. If it doesn’t feel right, call 911,” he says, adding that patients who arrive at the emergency room via EMS often have better outcomes.

“The stroke team is in communication with EMS and is ready and waiting when the patient gets here.”