Recognizing signs of a stroke

February 18, 2009 3:23:07 PM PST
They are the tell-tale signs that could save lives, but surprisingly most people do not know what the are. A recent study says that sixty percent of stroke deaths in this country are in women. Can you ask someone three questions to check if they're having a stroke? The answer is yes, but there may be even better ways to find out, and to get help fast.

Edith Joyce still is weak long after her stroke. Even while she was having the muscle weakness and numbness of her arm and leg, she wasn't aware it was a stroke.

"I didn't know what was going on then. I'm the first person I know who has had a stroke," Joyce said.

Joyce is like most people, not aware of the signs of a stroke. A few years ago, these three questions were publicized to help people recognize if someone was having a stroke:

Can you smile?
Can you raise both arms? Muscle weakness on one side might show up here.
Can you speak a simple sentence? The ability to speak might be damaged by stroke.

Experts don't agree on just these three signs. Even the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association don't endorse this test.

"There certainly other items to consider that are just as helpful," Dr. Franz Messerli of St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital said.

Joyce now knows several of them.

"You could look for numbers either on the right or the left. Some people might have trouble speaking, slurring their words. They would probably also have a hideous headache," she said.

Also, a victim might be weak in one arm or leg or have trouble walking.

There's another big factor that can make a stroke even worse -- denying that anything is wrong.

Dr. Messerli says this can be the worst reaction, as it delays quick treatment.

"They think, 'Well, I just lost a little feeling in the right arm, so let's see what is going to happen,'" he said.

He says patients can deny the symptoms, even if they recognize them. It's critical to get to the emergency room immediately to prevent further brain damage from a stroke. Doctors now have drugs that can even reverse symptoms if those drugs are given soon enough.

People who get to a hospital no more than an hour after having the first symptoms of a stroke are twice as likely to get the powerful clot-dissolving drug that is the first line of treatment, a new study found.

Only 12.9 percent of those arriving between one and three hours of symptom onset received the drug, the same study found.

The results "are both good news and bad news," said study author Dr. Jeffrey L. Saver, director of the Stroke Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"The good news is that the message is getting through to a partial extent. We're getting early treatment to a lot more people than we ever expected. The bad news is that only about a quarter of patients are getting to hospitals within an hour of having stroke symptoms," he said.

To learn more about strokes on the net, visit the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association.