Recognize Stroke Signs to Save Lives

May is Stroke Awareness Month and your knowledge of stroke warning signs could save your life, or the life of your loved ones. 

Stroke occurs when the arteries leading to and within the brain are suddenly blocked or ruptured, causing that part of the brain to be permanently damaged. In fact, stroke is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and many people’s lives are permanently affected from it. While stroke has fallen to the No. 5 cause of death on the mainland United States, unfortunately, it remains the No. 3 cause of death in Hawaii, surpassed only by heart disease and cancer. Stroke disability can be avoided if treated immediately in a timely fashion. This requires greater community awareness to recognize stroke warning signs and the actions to take when stroke occurs. Hawaii’s medical community is working to try to reduce the impact of stroke in our state by improving the stroke system of care. Reducing the time to treatment can save millions of brain cells in a stroke patient, reducing the risk of death and disability. However, the improvements being made in the EMS and hospital systems will not result in better patient outcomes unless stroke is recognized quickly and 9-1-1 is called to deliver the patient to a hospital prepared to provide the best available treatment.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a “clot buster” drug called tPA in 1996 which has dramatically changed the outlook for ischemic stroke patients who receive treatment quickly. When the stroke is caused by a clot, tPA, if administered in less than 4.5 hours from the stroke’s onset, can help dissolve the clot, restoring blood and oxygen flow to the brain. Depending on how quickly blood flow is restored, it can mean the difference between life or death, or severe disability occurring. However, only a small percentage of Hawaii patients arrive at a hospital capable of treating stroke within that 4.5-hour window. The reasons range from not understanding the stroke warning signs, to denial of the symptoms. And almost half of all Hawaii stroke patients arrive to the hospital by means other than EMS which can result in delays in treatment. 

Recognizing a stroke has been made easier by the American Stroke Association’s development of the F-A-S-T stroke awareness campaign. “F” stands for facial droop, usually on one side. “A” stands for arm weakness or numbness, again usually on one side. “S” stands for difficulty speaking, or speech slur. “T” stands for time; time to call 9-1-1. If you witness someone having those warning signs, don’t hesitate, immediately call 9-1-1.

Most importantly, many strokes can be avoided through lifestyle improvements. The American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association, offers stroke prevention tips, a patient and caregiver support network, and many other stroke-related resources. Go to www.strokeassociation.org to learn more.

Don Weisman is the Hawaii Government Relations/Communications Director for the American Heart Association’s Hawaii Division. In 2015, he worked with Hawaii Stroke Coalition members to support state legislation that now requires all Hawaii stroke hospitals to collect and submit de-identified stroke patient data to the State Department of Health to be used, in conjunction with the State Stroke Coalition stakeholders, to identify ways to reduce patient care disparities throughout Hawaii, and improve stroke care and stroke patient outcomes.