Each year, about 800,000 people suffer a stroke—an injury to the brain caused by the blockage or bursting of one of its blood vessels. Though this devastating event can happen to anyone at any time, advancing age increases the risk: Roughly three-quarters of strokes occur in people over age 65.1
There’s good news, though: More than ever, doctors have ways to help stroke victims. “People sometimes used to end up in nursing homes, and now many of them are able to go home after treatment and resume their lives. It’s very cool,” says Deepa P. Bhupali, MD, a vascular neurologist and assistant professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center.
But there’s a catch: The window of time when patients can be helped is short. “Usually it’s up to 3 or 4 hours, though in certain cases it might be as long as 6 or 7 hours, depending on the type of stroke,” explains Dr. Bhupali. That’s why it’s crucial to be able to spot the signs of a stroke in yourself or a loved one. The American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association devised the acronym F.A.S.T. to remind people of the main symptoms of a stroke, and what to do if they occur:
“Don’t call a friend or family member—call 911 first,” Dr. Bhupali reiterates. Since time is of the essence, summon medical assistance as quickly as you can. Don’t take an aspirin, as so many of us do when things feel vaguely amiss: If you have bleeding in your brain, it will only make it worse.
Also resist the urge to wait and see if your condition improves, Dr. Bhupali adds. You may not be feeling pain (strokes typically don’t hurt), but that doesn’t mean your condition isn’t potentially serious. “It’s not uncommon that people tell us, ‘I couldn’t pick up my coffee cup today and I took a nap thinking I would feel better, but I woke up feeling worse,’” she shares.
By then, it may be too late. “Typically, if you’re not getting blood flow to that part of the brain, it essentially dies and leaves a scar,” Dr. Bhupali explains. Strokes can be fatal, or lead to long-term impairments such as difficulty speaking or understanding speech, trouble recognizing or remembering things, and difficulty moving one or more limbs.2
On the brighter side, patients who seek medical help swiftly may be able to avoid these devastating consequences. “If you call 911, an ambulance will arrive and your vital signs will likely be checked during your ride to the hospital,” Dr. Bhupali says. “Once you’re in the hospital, we will get your blood work done and immediately give you a CAT scan.” The scan will produce a sophisticated x-ray image of your brain, helping your physicians to pinpoint the problem area.3
Blockages can often be treated with a clot-busting substance. A newer procedure called thrombectomy can, in some cases, remove the clot via a thin catheter threaded into the brain. “You’ll probably be in the hospital for two to three days before you’re able to return home, barring further complications,” Dr. Bhupali adds.
The bottom line? If you experience any of the symptoms of a stroke, call 911 “and let us do the work,” Dr. Bhupali urges. “I always tell patients that no one wants to spend a day in the ER, but you have to do what is safe.” Timely help can help prevent permanent impairments—a stroke of luck for which patients can be deeply grateful.
Reduce Your Risk
According to studies, about 80% of all strokes could be prevented.4 These sensible steps can all help; ask your doctor for more advice.
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