By William Barrow, M.D.
Stroke is a medical emergency that affects roughly 800,000 Americans every year. Of those affected, three quarters have never had a stroke before. Unfortunately 130,000 stroke victims each year do not survive the strokes that they suffer. Tennesseans suffer significantly more strokes than the national average due to higher rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Furthermore, while stroke is much more common in those over the age of 65, people of all ages are at risk and one quarter of strokes occur in those under 65, with some becoming victims in their teens or twenties. Because of this ALL Tennesseans should be aware that they are at risk for stroke and know what to do should they or their loved one develop stroke symptoms.
Fortunately modern medicine has given health care providers tools to combat this epidemic. In certain cases “clot busting” medications can be given intravenously that travel through the blood stream and dissolve clots that are lodged in arteries before permanent damage can be done. In other cases retrieval devices can be passed through the body’s arteries and into the brain to grasp and remove clots. These techniques have led to significant reductions in the death and disability rates in stroke patients who receive them. But unfortunately these interventions are only helpful if used very soon after the beginning of a stroke, and there are no options for intervention once symptoms have been present for six hours or more.
So what can the average Tennessean do to reduce their chances of death or disability from a stroke? It remains true that the best way to survive a stroke is to never have one in the first place. Regular visits to your doctor to ensure that stroke risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes are well managed will reduce your risk of stroke. And if you smoke, stop. Smoking triples the risk of all stroke types and tobacco use can render other prevention therapies such as blood thinning medications ineffective.
But what if prevention strategies are not enough? Despite even the best possible medical care some individuals will still fall victim to stroke. In this situation early recognition is critical. Any numbness, weakness, or loss of balance that occurs suddenly should be taken seriously. Changes in speech, vision, or new confusion or bizarre behavior should be considered potential emergencies. Do not wait and hope that these symptoms go away. Do not risk the health of yourself or a loved one for the sake of avoiding the burden of an emergency room visit. Do not try and contact your family physician. Call 911. Get to the nearest hospital so that we can help.
At Jackson-Madison County General Hospital we care for 1800 stroke patients per year, but unfortunately only 600 of them arrive within the six hour time window in which life saving interventions can be considered. While the size of our seventeen county service area brings some challenges to timely care, the vast majority of those that do not reach us in time miss these opportunities because of a delay between the beginning of their symptoms and calling for help. Our state-of-the-art facility and highly trained staff can manage all aspects of stroke related care, but only if you are here. Again, do not ignore symptoms. We are happy to tell patients that everything is fine, it was a false alarm, there is another, less serious cause of your symptoms. We do not enjoy telling patients that we’re sorry, it’s too late. If you think you or a loved one might be having a stroke, let us tell you if it is something worth worrying over. let us tell you that everything is fine, or if not, that we are going to try to fix it. Let us help.