Picture this: You’re at a family dinner with your grandparents. Your grandfather is telling his grandest fishing tale, when he mentions that his arm is starting to feel weak.
Suddenly, he starts slurring his words and his speech becomes garbled. You notice one side of his face appears to be drooping. Do you know what to do?
Nearly 800,000 people have a stroke every year, but a 2013 study by the American Heart Association found that many people who care for family or friends at high risk of for stroke do not know the potential warning signs. In this story, the grandfather displayed three classic symptoms a stroke: face drooping, arm weakness or numbness and slurred or garbled speech.
When it comes to stroke, timing is everything. A stroke occurs when blood has ceased flowing to a part of brain. Each minute a stroke goes untreated and blood flow to the brain continues to be blocked, a person loses roughly 1.9 million neurons.
“If you see something, get to the hospital as fast as you can,” said University of Minnesota Health Vascular Neurologist Ben Miller, MD. “Don’t worry about assessing whether it might be a stroke. Our job is to sort it out.”
Miller said it’s essential that everyone—particularly those who care for people who are at high risk of stroke—know and can identify the signs and symptoms of stroke.
The best course of action is to think F.A.S.T., an acronym that details how to identify and respond to a potential stroke. If you see any of these symptoms as a bystander, immediately call 911.
Signs and symptoms of a stroke for some people may come on and go away without intervention. It’s possible these are TIAs—or Transient Ischemic Attacks—and you should still treat them as if they are a stroke. Unlike a stroke, TIAs cause no permanent dysfunction, but they should be considered a warning sign for future stroke risk.
“Unlike someone having a heart attack, stroke symptoms can be less dramatic. They can be subtle,” Miller said.
Besides stemming the onset of permanent brain damage, people experiencing a stroke need to get to get to the hospital quickly to have a chance at treatment. Treatments for stroke are only effective in the hours immediately after a stroke begins, and are best performed at hospitals with a comprehensive stroke center, such as University of Minnesota Medical Center.
If a stroke victim gets to the hospital in under four hours, doctors can often use medication to break up the blood clot causing the stroke. If a patient seeks treatment in under six hours, surgeons can also sometimes perform a thrombectomy, in which they insert a catheter into the brain and pull out the clot.
There is increasing evidence that a thrombectomy can also be helpful for patients who wake up with a stroke, according to Neuroradiologist Bharathi Jagadeesan, MD. Still, the earlier a patient gets to a hospital, the greater the chances that doctors can reverse or minimize the symptoms and damage.
“Time and awareness remain the key,” Jagadeesan said.
“The first step is identification,” Miller said. “Teaching yourself to identify the signs and symptoms is key to early intervention.”A stroke can happen to anyone, but there are ways to decrease your risk. Making lifestyle changes to adopt healthier behaviors—including controlling blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, treating diabetes effectively, limiting alcohol and avoiding illicit drugs—can lower your risk of stroke.