It’s been said before, but I think it’s important enough to bear repeating: When it comes to a stroke, time lost is brain lost.
The more time that passes between the onset of a stroke and treatment, the more likely that brain functions are permanently lost. Generally, a person who is treated within three hours of experiencing a stroke – specifically an ischemic stroke (one caused by a blood clot in the brain) – has a 30-percent greater chance of recovering with no or little debilitating effects.
We must treat a stroke, or brain attack, like a heart attack. But getting prompt medical attention and an accurate diagnosis within three hours may not be as easy as it seems.
First, there is the barrier of realizing you are having a stroke. Although information about the warning signs of stroke is readily available (for more, read my blog post “Strokes – Not Just for Old Folks”), many people are reluctant to admit to themselves that they may be having a stroke when it happens. By the time the symptoms become serious and they seek medical attention, precious time has already passed. I must reiterate that if you or someone you know is showing signs of a stroke, no matter how minor the signs seem to be, it is vital to get medical help immediately.
Secondly, it may take some time to get an accurate diagnosis once you are in the care of medical personnel. When it comes to treatment of acute stroke, not all hospitals are the same. For this reason, I strongly recommend that you know the location of the nearest hospital that is certified as a primary stroke center by The Joint Commission (an independent group that accredits U.S. health care organizations) in collaboration with the American Stroke Association and the Brain Attack Coalition. Hospitals that are designated as primary stroke centers have been recognized for their exceptional stroke care, and must meet clinical requirements and performance-measuring activities shown to significantly improve outcomes for stroke patients. As of Oct. 1, 2009, there are more than 600 certified stroke centers in 49 states. The Stroke Program at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, where I work, is a certified primary stroke center.
To locate a certified primary stroke center near you, visit The Joint Commission’s Quality Check Web site. You can search by zip code or state. Once you’ve selected your area, narrow your search by selecting “Type of Provider/Certification” and choose “Certified Programs/Disease-Specific Care.” You will see a list of all certified hospitals in the area and the types of accreditation they’ve received from The Joint Commission, including whether they are a primary stroke center.
Thirdly, those who have suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), or mini stroke, may not even realize they are having a serious health emergency at all, and never seek medical help. During a TIA, a person experiences stroke symptoms that typically last for a minute or two and then disappear. Although a TIA does not cause permanent brain damage, it is often a precursor to a real stroke. Recent studies have shown that stroke risk after a TIA is very high, especially in the first few days after the TIA; according to the National Stroke Association, up to 40 percent of people who experience a TIA will go on to have an actual stroke. In this situation, it is crucial to get prompt medical attention in order to reduce the likelihood that you’ll have a full-blown stroke.
When it comes to strokes, three hours may mean the difference between full recovery and lifelong debilitation, even death. Be prepared by learning the symptoms, knowing the location of your nearest primary stroke center and, above all, not hesitating to seek immediate medical care.